The Irish Times view on the pandemic response: a test of the State’s agility

The Government must respond quickly to emerging scientific evidence on vaccine-mixing and vaccines for 12-16-year-olds

Staff at work in Collins Barracks, Dublin, where a rapid Covid antigen testing station was set up ahead of a pilot festival in Kilmainham. Photograph: Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie

Staff at work in Collins Barracks, Dublin, where a rapid Covid antigen testing station was set up ahead of a pilot festival in Kilmainham. Photograph: Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie

 

At each point in the State’s response to the Covid-19 emergency, it has had to contend, broadly speaking, with two types of problems: those it can control and those it cannot. Even as its handling of the former – in areas such as testing, hospital capacity or, more recently, vaccination – has improved, it has always been vulnerable to the latter.

Of those external forces which the Government is largely powerless to influence, two will largely shape the summer. The first is the behaviour of the virus, in particular the Delta variant. How its spreads, what impact it has and how it interacts with vaccines are now the key questions of the current phase of the pandemic. The second is the shifting response of Ireland’s neighbours, Britain in particular.

Under both those headings, the signs are not good. Delta is moving rapidly across the country. It is more transmissible, apparently more dangerous and more resistant to vaccines. A new study from Israel found that the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine – the one the State relies on the most – against infection and symptomatic disease fell to 64 per cent since early June, a period in which Delta was spreading. Its effectiveness against hospital admission and serious illness remained higher, at 93 per cent.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s misguided lifting of even the most basic public health controls, including mask-wearing, from July 19th will inevitably cause infections to spike in Britain – with a predictable spill-over effect across the Irish Sea.

Mitigating the fallout from those two external forces, and ensuring that social and economic life can continue safely at the same time, is now the Government’s main task. It has several levers at its disposal, including the vaccination campaign and the test-and-trace system, which will be in higher demand in coming weeks. It must also respond quickly to emerging scientific evidence on questions such as vaccine-mixing and administering vaccines for 12-16-year-olds. Several European countries are already doing both of these things, which could make a big difference in helping to suppress infections.

That reflects a broader point. In some parts of the Covid response, such as the vaccine rollout itself, the State response has been coordinated, reactive and generally transparent. In others, such as the delivery of advice from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) and the relationship between Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), the dynamic has been slower and more opaque.

In the coming phase, when the response may well need to shift week-by-week or even day-by-day in order to strike the right balance between infection control and personal liberties, the State’s agility and responsiveness will be sorely tested.

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