The Irish Times view on the pandemic: Towards an exit strategy

Authorities will need a plan for what happens if the virus returns with a vengeance

The data shows encouraging signs that sweeping social restrictions are succeeding in slowing down the spread of Covid-19, yet that progress remains fragile. Photograph: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The data shows encouraging signs that sweeping social restrictions are succeeding in slowing down the spread of Covid-19, yet that progress remains fragile. Photograph: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

 

The State finds itself at a critical moment in the coronavirus emergency. The data shows encouraging signs that sweeping social restrictions are succeeding in slowing down the spread of Covid-19, yet that progress remains fragile. If the public concludes that the threat has receded and adherence to physical distancing guidelines begins to wane, a second wave of infections could come within days and the sacrifices of the past month will have been for nothing. Public health officials are therefore reluctant to speak about an exit strategy.

That must happen, however. The current shutdown cannot continue indefinitely. Setting out a roadmap towards partial normalisation, if communicated well and accompanied by a frank assessment of the dangers that will persist, can help ease the stress of the coming weeks while preparing the country for the difficult months to follow.

But for that partial reopening to take place, certain conditions will have to be met. First, the downward trend in the growth curve must continue for a certain number of weeks, to be determined by public health officials, and the real-time transmission rate must be brought below one, which would mean the epidemic was holding steady. To know how the virus is behaving, however, we must improve our ability to observe it.

That’s the second condition: a huge increase in our testing and contact-tracing capacity so that new cases can be identified and isolated within 24 hours. So far there has been a yawning gap between the “test, test, test” rhetoric and the reality of a system that has struggled to keep pace, resulting in long waiting lists for swab sampling and lab results. Until that problem is solved, the restrictions cannot be lifted. Phone apps may help with contact-tracing, while random antibody testing would improve our understanding of prevalence and immunity levels in the community.

In addition, the authorities must take definitive positions on two questions: travel and face masks. The best test-and-trace operation will be undermined if people are travelling in and out of the State without some form of checks or at least guidance. Similarly, the Government will have to take a clearer position on masks, which could play a role in reducing the rate of infection but which remain in short supply.

Finally, the authorities will need a plan for what happens if the virus returns with a vengeance in the coming months. Global shutdowns were a desperate if necessary response to a terrifying and novel threat. As our understanding of the virus develops – and, in time, our ability to treat it – can we come up with more targeted counter-measures to suppress the growth curve? If not, then we must be prepared for the possibility that severe restrictions – and even further shutdowns – could be a feature of our lives until an effective vaccine is widely available.

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