The Irish Times view on the return to lockdown: moving quickly to retain control

The Government could have waited a week or two, but other countries’ experience shows that acting quickly saves lives and reduces the peak in infections

Taoiseach Micheál Martin was upfront in saying the restrictions could be in place far beyond the scheduled review on January 12th. Photograph: Tom Honan/PA Wire

Taoiseach Micheál Martin was upfront in saying the restrictions could be in place far beyond the scheduled review on January 12th. Photograph: Tom Honan/PA Wire

 

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is to brace for the unexpected. And so the announcement by Government yesterday that the country is to revert to a Level 5 lockdown, while it will cause hardship and disruption for many, is a sadly fitting end to a disorienting year.

The case for moving quickly to interrupt transmission of the disease had become clear. An alarmingly rapid rise in Covid-19 infections in the past week has put growth on an exponential curve, with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar suggesting the daily case numbers could reach 2,000 by the end of the year. That trend would result in hospitals coming under intolerable pressure early in the new year. Unlike in the autumn, when a spike in infections occurred primarily among younger cohorts, public health experts this time are concerned to see the disease widely distributed across the population, including among vulnerable older people. Irish authorities have not yet observed the new British mutant variant of the virus, which London said transmits more easily, but it’s reasonably safe to assume it is already circulating here, or soon will be.

The Government could have waited a week or two, but other countries’ experience shows that acting quickly saves lives and reduces the peak in infections. It will come as little comfort to those who must now cancel Christmas and New Year plans at the 11th hour, but weighed against cost of inaction – lives lost, severe illnesses, hospitals further stretched – it would have been reckless to wait. Thinking beyond Christmas, the goal of keeping schools open – rightly judged a priority by Government – can only be achieved if the virus remains under some measure of control in the community.

As we know, ordering a lockdown is easier than lifting it again. Taoiseach Micheál Martin was upfront in saying the restrictions could be in place far beyond the scheduled review on January 12th. It’s quite likely that they will remain in some form until a critical mass of the population has been vaccinated in the Spring. In the meantime, the Government acted swiftly to provide financial supports to the many businesses that will be left reeling from yesterday’s decision. It must also ensure the health system is ready for the coming pressure, and that the test-and-trace system does not buckle under the extra strain, as it did in October. The huge logistical effort involved in distributing vaccines across the country over the coming months will be a critical test of the State’s organisational capacity.

The country faces a trying few weeks. It will be a Christmas like no other, one marked by absences and anxiety. But we have come too far to give up now. And with vaccines on the way and the light extending a little further into the day, we can approach the new year in the knowledge that this nightmare will soon pass.

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