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Lockdown must be eased to stop Ireland returning to the 1980s

Stephen Collins: State will be plunged into worst of all worlds if action is not taken

If the Government doesn’t move to ease the lockdown measures soon the country will find itself in the worst of all possible worlds: ever increasing damage to the economy and society accompanied by mass disobedience that will make a mockery of the rules in any case.

Already it is clear from cursory observation that public behaviour is changing. While most people are still observing social distancing many have abandoned the two-metre rule in their daily interactions and have made the unilateral decision that one metre or so is sufficient.

The Taoiseach’s own picnic in the Park at last weekend was typical of the way peoples’ behaviour has moved on since the first two months of the lockdown. Now that Covid-19 has virtually been eliminated from the community, officialdom needs to catch up and produce a realistic set of rules designed to open up society on a phased basis while attempting to keep the virus at bay.

Most other European countries, some of which were hit far harder than Ireland, have begun to relax the lockdown rules to get their economies moving again. Unless we soon start to do the same we could well find this country in a much deeper recession than our European neighbours, much like the 1980s when we were the odd man out in western world, in thrall to recession while the rest of the EU boomed.

Sticking rigidly to strict rules created an absurd situation in the Dáil on Wednesday when Leo Varadkar had to leave the chamber after two hours and continue his question and answer session with TDs on a video link from another room in the building.

Labour leader Alan Kelly was right to suggest that the rules for Dáil sittings are past their sell by date.

“I know we say the advice is that every workplace is different but I mean look at the size of this place. This is ridiculous,” he said.

To date, the heartening thing about the public's response to Covid-19 has been the sense of national solidarity

Given the size of the Dáil chamber, and the intensive cleaning that takes place when the sessions are over, there is no valid reason for continuing the two-hour restriction. There is also a strong case to be made for more TDs being allowed into the chamber at any one time.

TDs need to start behaving sensibly in their own House as a first step towards leading society back to some kind of normality so that businesses, schools and shops can open with a realistic set of rules. For instance, there is no good reason why primary schools should not start to reopen on a phased basis in June.

Young children are in no danger from Covid-19 and the evidence is that they do not pass it on either. The fact that the Irish National Teachers Organisation has been raising objections to the schools going back in September shows how the level of fear about Covid-19 has got out of control.

Primary schools

In Norway primary schools have been back since May 11th and social distancing has been reduced to one metre. Denmark has also started to reopen schools with a social distancing rule of one metre. While both those countries have been less hard hit than Ireland by Covid-19, they have not seen any significant surge in cases since they began to move back to normality.

Varadkar has made a number of comments indicating that he would like to speed up the current plan for a return to normality but for the moment he is adhering to the advice of the chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, that no change in the rules is warranted. If that continues to be the advice in the coming weeks, Varadkar and his colleagues will have to make a serious decision about what is in the best long-term interests of Irish society.

The Taoiseach made a valid point in the Dáil on Wednesday that it would be best if any relaxation of the rules is done through political consensus and he suggested that the Covid-19 committee might be the place where broad agreement could emerge. Alan Kelly, who is a member of that committee, was the first to suggest the move to a one-metre rule and he should pursue the objective and attempt to persuade his committee colleagues to agree.

To date, the heartening thing about the response of politicians and the public to the threat of Covid-19 has been the sense of national solidarity. That has helped us to do far better than our British neighbours in tackling the spread of the virus.

While it is still impossible to do a comparison of the relative impact in terms of lives lost, due to different ways of counting figures, the evidence suggests that the UK has the highest death rate in Europe while Ireland is at the lower end of the scale.

Varadkar deserves considerable credit for grasping the seriousness of the threat at a relatively early stage and for giving the country the kind of inspired leadership that created a sense of common purpose. Making the right call on the most appropriate course to get out of the crisis will be an even greater test.