The Irish Times view on the reopening: deciding on acceptable risk

Rather than putting everything on pause, there is a good argument for sticking with the plan but focusing particular attention on protecting over-60s who remain unvaccinated

Empty outdoor dining areas in Dublinduring bad weather last week. The reopening of indoor dining on July 5th is now in question due to the rise in the number of Delta variant cases. Photograph: Leah Farrell /

The Government faces an important decision on Tuesday when it will assess advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on whether to proceed with the next stage in the reopening as planned on July 5th. Under the current timetable, that is when indoor dining and drinking is to resume, the limit on wedding guests is to rise to 50 and four households are to be allowed to gather indoors. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has warned all along that each reopening stage is subject to review based on the progress of the vaccination campaign and wider epidemiological trends. The former has been positive overall, with 41 per cent of the adult population now fully protected. But the rise of the more transmissible Delta variant, which puts up stronger resistance to some vaccines, has complicated the picture.

One of the Government's chief concerns appears to be a desire to avoid reimposing any restrictions after they have been lifted. That's understandable but unlikely to happen. Either the July 5th reopening goes ahead and society accepts a certain level of risk, or it is delayed by a few weeks so as to buy more time for vaccinations to further blunt the impact of the Delta strain. Given that Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said the Government is "very unlikely" to depart from public health advice, in effect it is Nphet that will decide.

The Delta variant poses a real threat. It is causing a surge in infections in Britain, and while a large share of the State's most vulnerable cohorts are now fully vaccinated, hundreds of thousands of people in the 60-69 age bracket remain unprotected. That cohort is for the most part receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, which gives 60 per cent protection against Delta after two doses but only 33 per cent after one. Even if Delta were to spread mainly among young people, its rampant circulation would make it very difficult to protect those who are at risk of severe illness from it.

Against that, however, the impact of a high infection rate now would be very different to a similar rate earlier in the year. That can be seen in England, where Delta has a death rate of one in 1,000. Ireland has an extra advantage given its heavy use of the mRNA vaccines, which give greater protection. Rather than putting everything on pause, there is a good argument for sticking with the plan but focusing particular attention on protecting over-60s who remain unvaccinated. That may mean advising them to be particularly cautious over coming weeks. But it should also involve offering them an mRNA vaccine as their second dose, thereby giving them higher protection and giving it to them quicker. Whatever the decision, it's important that the models and scenarios used to inform it should be made publicly accessible so that the debate over the level of risk society chooses to accept is not confined to a closed-doors meeting on Merrion Street.