The Irish Times view on the reopening plan: hope – and a cautionary note

While overall the view is positive, uncertainties still cloud the outlook for the coming months

While the Government’s decisions appear to have the approval of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), it still amounts to a gamble by Taoiseach Micheál Martin (above) and fellow Coalition leaders, Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan of the Greens. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography

While the Government’s decisions appear to have the approval of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), it still amounts to a gamble by Taoiseach Micheál Martin (above) and fellow Coalition leaders, Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan of the Greens. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography

 

When the country was put into lockdown amid dangerously rising Covid-19 infection rates in January, the shutdown came suddenly. The coming reopening will be more gradual, but the speed of the process – approved by a Government that has taken a consistently cautious approach since the premature relaxation of last December – has come as a surprise.

Major changes will take place from May 10th, when inter-county travel will resume, hairdressers will reopen and limits on outdoor gatherings will ease. A month later, in early June, hotels will be back in business and outdoor dining will be permitted, with restrictions on indoor dining among the last to fall. All of that means that within two months, if the sequence plays out as planned, daily life across the country will in most key respects be back to normal, albeit with continuing protocols around social distancing, mask-wearing and large gatherings.

While pressure from lobby groups for accelerated reopening has been less intense – or perhaps more discreet – this time around than it was last autumn, the Government was conscious of other pressures – on mental health, on the isolated and the unemployed, and of course on the public finances. Many people are weary and worn-down, and the crowds gathering outdoors in good weather show that some are already a few steps ahead of the reopening schedule.

But while the Government’s decisions appear to have the approval of the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) – without that approval these changes would have been politically unthinkable – it still amounts to a gamble by Taoiseach Micheál Martin and fellow Coalition leaders, Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan of the Greens. That’s because, while infection numbers are steady or in decline and the vaccination programme has led to a dramatic fall in hospitalisations and death from the virus, the country is not out of the woods yet.

The reopening is vulnerable to two potential threats. One is a sudden, unexpected fall-off in vaccine supply. Each stage in the reopening is presumably linked to modelling of anticipated immunisation rates by week and the likely effect of those rates on virus transmission between now and July. An abrupt halt to the programme, whether due to manufacturing problems or regulatory concerns, would upend those assumptions. The second risk factor is the emergence of a so-called escape variant that resists any or all of the vaccines in use in the State. Neither of these is reason in itself to prolong lockdowns for any longer than necessary, but they are cautionary notes. So while the Government is right to offer people hope, official rhetoric must also allow for the uncertainties that still cloud the outlook for the coming months.

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