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Jennifer O’Connell: The Government doesn’t trust us and it’s mutual

There is good news but officials fear we will lose the run of ourselves again

Taoiseach Micheál Martin seemed determined to express as much misery and misfortune as possible in his speech on Tuesday. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography/PA Wire

The Irish have dozens of ways to express misery and misfortune, and Taoiseach Micheál Martin seemed determined to pack as many of them as possible into his speech on Tuesday. We are, he said, “physically and emotionally exhausted”; “under enormous pressure”; “deeply worried”; “all completely fed up”; “hard-pressed”; “frustrated”. He talked about “how hard it is”; “the toll on... mental health and wellbeing”; “the devastation”.

There were more green shoots of gloom in the Government's Path Ahead plan – references to the "scarring effects" of lockdowns and the "uncertainties and unknowns" ahead. The tone from public health experts was equally dire. HSE chief Paul Reid said cases could yet go back to an "explosive level". Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn suggested it will be the end of the year before things are "close to normal". One Government Minister emerging from a National Public Health Emergency Team briefing this week told Irish Times journalist Jennifer Bray, "We are really in the worst of it."

The Government and public health teams here live in fear of a parallel epidemic of what they call 'anticipatory behaviour'

Here’s the news they don’t want you to know: things are a lot less bleak than they seem.

The disease is on a downward trajectory globally. According to the World Health Organisation, cases fell by 11 per cent this week, the sixth consecutive weekly decline. Here, nearly half of eligible adults will have had their first dose of the vaccine by the end of April. More than 80 per cent will have had one jab by the end of June. Hospital outbreaks have plummeted. HSE chief clinical officer Colm Henry spoke of a "collapse" in cases in nursing homes, which "must be attributable to the vaccine". Our 14-day incidence has dropped from the top of the European table to 20th position.


So why the resolutely dour outlook? Ostensibly, it's because of worrying new variants of the virus, including B117, which now accounts for 90 per cent of infections here. But that strain was first detected in the United Kingdom, and infections are falling rapidly there too. On Thursday, its four chief medical officers downgraded the coronavirus alert level from 5 to 4. While Boris Johnson hasn't quite resumed his characteristic state of hyperactive labradoodle, he's promising a "crocus of hope poking through the frost".

There is more to the wild divergence in the approaches between the two countries than just Johnson’s natural ebullience, or Brexit-justifying jingoism. Part of it is that the vaccine rollout programme here got off to a much slower start than in Britain, but all going to plan, we will come close to catching up.

The Government and public health teams here live in fear of a parallel epidemic of what they call “anticipatory behaviour” – a paternalistic phrase that used to be primarily associated with animal studies, but which, like the virus, seems to have made a zoonotic leap. There are signs, Glynn said this week, of a re-emergence of one of its key symptoms – an increase in mobility data. “It is essential,” the Government plan warns, that any return of services “is not interpreted as a signal of wider reopening”.

A year after the hollow promises about how we were all in this together, we've fallen into a damaging cycle of distrust

There it is; the real explanation for the pessimism. They don’t trust us not to lose the run of ourselves again. Too much focus on the crocuses and not enough on the frost, and we could find ourselves rushing headlong into a fourth wave. The prescription is to talk us into a national depression. Recent data from the Central Statistics Office found that 42 per cent of the public rate their life satisfaction as low. Mental health referrals went up in November and December. Referrals relating to eating disorders “particularly in adolescents have increased significantly”, the Government’s plan acknowledges.

It promises “a specific focus on supporting mental health and wellbeing” in the next phase of reopening. But we’ll need more than just infantilising ad campaigns about staying connected.

All over Europe, populations are jaded and the fragile contract under which they've agreed to the indefinite suspension of their freedoms is fraying. That is not a peculiarly Irish phenomenon. But we've spent longer in lockdown and seem more mired in indecision than many other countries. We've had more days of workplace closures than anywhere in the European Union or the UK.

Nearly one in three people now feel that there are too many restrictions, according to the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll. More than two-thirds want to go back to normal once the elderly and vulnerable have been vaccinated – not because they're callous, but because at some point soon, we'll reach a tipping point where the risk posed by the virus will be outweighed by the known effects of staying locked down.

Meanwhile, we’re told that “a plan in respect of the optimal deployment of antigen testing will be finalised for the consideration of Government by mid-March” – seven months after the HSE first started examining the benefits of rapid testing. That’s more than half the lifetime of the pandemic.

We could, right now, lift the 5km restriction for people who want to engage in low-risk, outdoors activities, like playing golf, fishing, swimming or walking in uncrowded beauty spots, but it would require a leap of faith in the public’s ability not to take advantage. It is as though, to paraphrase that saying about the Irish, the Government believes we have only two possible states – untrammelled euphoria or absolute despair.

A year after the hollow promises about how we were all in this together, we've fallen into a damaging cycle of distrust. The Government doesn't trust us and, increasingly, it's mutual. The poll found just 45 per cent believe our leaders are doing a good job on the pandemic, down 13 per cent. Some of this is to do with the deliberate blurring of the lines between "guidance" and the law, highlighted by the the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission report this week.

The irony is that things may actually be much better than they’re willing to admit.