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Fintan O’Toole: It’s not the public that has Covid fatigue – it’s the State

There are worrying signs that those managing the pandemic are losing the ability to concentrate on what matters

The people who are managing the pandemic are only human. And one of the things that happens to humans after six months of relentless pressure is that they become exhausted. This is nothing to ashamed of – if anything, it is evidence of the great effort they have put in. But we need to recognise the signs of what is happening: a worrying loss of concentration on what matters.

I know what happens to me when I’m tired but carry on working. I lose focus. I let my mind wander. I disappear down the Google wormhole. I start looking for figures on religious vocations in Ireland and end up reading about the debates on the nature of the Trinity at the Council of Nicea in AD325.

The State had its wormhole moment last week: the statutory instrument, signed into law by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, requiring pubs and restaurants to "retain and make available" to the Garda and the HSE all information on their customers – including the food they ordered – for 28 days.

If the intention is to enforce this order, public resources in the midst of a national emergency are going to be diverted into checking whether someone in a pub in Kinnegad really had a burger and chips or just the chips. It is quite literally too much information, a deluge of pointless trivia.


Whether someone did or did not eat a burger in Kinnegad is of absolutely no consequence for public health – what matters is whether, when he or she was in the pub, social distancing and hygiene rules were observed. Receipts will tell nobody anything about that.

Ireland, in spite of very severe logistical problems, had one of the best testing rates in Europe. But we did not build on this

Or the intention (and the State alas has a record of doing this) is not to enforce it, merely to make a grand gesture of warning to potential evil doers. But empty gestures are bad for our health right now – we need to be able to take what our Government tells us both literally and seriously.

However, the biggest problem with this moment of daftness is that it is evidence of a distracted and exhausted official mind. It manifests the primary symptom of mental fatigue: shattered concentration. In that zonked-out state, you lose sight of the forest and start staring at the patterns made by the bark on a single tree.    But what is the State distracting itself from?

Far too many things. Like why it can’t get around to making sick pay mandatory for all workers so that people aren’t afraid to report Covid-19 symptoms or to turn up for tests when contact tracers ask them to. Why can’t it act immediately to waive the need for planning permission for prefabs for schools that need them for safety?

The worst symptom of official fatigue, though, is the inability to concentrate on what we’re all told is the single most important weapon in fighting the virus: testing.

Let’s calmly consider the numbers. I don’t, of course, claim any expertise on testing – I am merely trying to judge this by the criteria the Irish authorities themselves told us they were using.

In April, the Irish Government said it needed testing capacity to reach 100,000 a week before it could consider lifting the lockdown. It follows that when you do lift the lockdown, testing capacity should be much larger than that, since the virus will be back in circulation. Now, testing capacity is not the same as actual testing, but one would assume that the latter should be pretty close to the former – why have the capacity and not use it?

The minimum

For the week leading up to September 3rd, the Irish system processed 62,000 tests – just two-thirds of what one might reasonably think the minimum number should be.

In the same week, Scotland processed 159,472 tests. Ireland has five million people, Scotland 5.4 million. With broadly similar populations, Ireland is managing less than 40 per cent of Scotland’s testing rate. The UK as a whole is doing 2.43 tests each day for every 1,000 people. Ireland is doing 1.8.

What this suggests is a kind of weariness with the whole business of testing. On August 22nd, Paul Reid, chief executive of the HSE, tweeted exultantly that the previous day tests had reached "our highest daily number ever", 13,000. But since then, the daily number has fallen back to much less than 10,000.

It seems obvious that there has been a loss of momentum. In the early stages of the pandemic, Ireland, in spite of very severe logistical problems, had one of the best testing rates in Europe. But we did not build on this. We did not train up a sufficient cohort of testers, leading to the ridiculous deployment of audiologists and speech and language therapists to take swabs, to the deep detriment of children who need their rare skills.

There’s been a lot of talk about Covid fatigue among the public. But this loss of energy and concentration in the official response is much more serious. Obsessing about the micro-management of meals while the basics of pandemic response are in the doldrums is a symptom of mental drift. The Government needs to follow its own advice – when you have symptoms, don’t ignore them. Seek help.