Michael McDowell: We must ease the coronavirus lockdown

The strategy to ease the lockdown cannot be dictated by public health experts alone

An almost deserted section of the M50 motorway in Dublin as restrictions remain in place to help curb the spread of coronavirus. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

An almost deserted section of the M50 motorway in Dublin as restrictions remain in place to help curb the spread of coronavirus. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

A few weeks ago, I suggested here that US president Donald Trump’s opponents needed to be careful in taking a stand against the ending of the lockdown because it is important for leaders to nurture hope and to be seen to be planning a way out of the current crisis. Trump’s encouragement of the anti-shutdown protests well illustrates that danger.

But the lesson should not be ignored here in Ireland either.

At the start of the lockdown, Minister for Health Simon Harris acknowledged that the measures he was announcing would only have a limited lifetime before public impatience would begin to express itself. The implication was that he was aware that the lockdown would have to be lifted in the not too distant future.

As we know, the lockdown regulations are scheduled to last only until midnight on May 4th. That does not mean that they will disappear in their entirety on the stroke of midnight. The great probability is that they will be extended in part at least so as to avoid a big bang followed by a tsunami of infections.

Strategy

We have now, however, to prepare a strategy to ease total lockdown and to restore the economic space. That strategy cannot be exclusively dictated by public-health considerations or public-health experts. We have to accept that the lockdown strategy has temporarily succeeded but it cannot be sustained in the medium or long term.

The economic foundations of the State are eroding whether we like it or not. The chances of reopening many businesses are ebbing away as long as the total lockdown continues. The State’s revenues are likely to be devastated by a prolonged lockdown. Income tax, VAT, corporation tax and excise revenue streams will reduce to a trickle in large parts of the private sector.

It isn’t a question of lives versus wealth. The economic life of Ireland as a community is itself in issue.

Experts speak of the precautionary principle. It has applicability to the sciences of public health and epidemiology. But it also applies to wider society and the economic wellbeing of the people. The social and economic effects of prolonging the lockdown are matters which should also attract the application of the precautionary principle.

Can we wait for a vaccine before easing substantially or ending the lockdown? I very much doubt it. Is there a drug which is about to radically improve treatment of Covid-19 in a transformative way? We have not heard of it.

The strategy for easing the lockdown is an urgent priority now for the Government and for the Oireachtas. While the chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan is understandably wary of even allowing discussion on the matter for fear of undermining the lockdown prematurely, there can be no justification for keeping the public in the dark about the evolution of the easing strategy.

The people are entitled to the respect of not being left in the dark

There is no monopoly of wisdom or insight in Government Buildings. There is no real danger in considering and debating in public whether, say, the construction industry should be allowed a phased and regulated reopening. The same applies to the possible reopening of the retail sector and manufacturing in whole or in part. We could well consider geographical easing too – if we were truthfully told where the clusters of infection have and have not appeared. If consideration of such matters happens behind closed doors among experts, there is plenty of scope for very serious error, either on the side of caution or haste.

This was illustrated by the unwise official countermanding on March 10th of the decision by nursing home owners on March 6th to curtail visits. My point is not to engage in a blame game with the benefit of hindsight; my point is that there simply is no monopoly of wisdom on such matters. Some might think that we collectively erred in concentrating on averting a hospitals crisis at the expense of simultaneously addressing the danger to the most vulnerable residents of institutions and homes.

Accountability

Those who may think about simply extending the May 4th deadline into June by ministerial regulation need to be accountable in a real way – not just in pat press briefings. Even the existence of our media is threatened by the lockdown.

We really need urgently a real, honest national debate on easing the lockdown – because ease it we must.

The Oireachtas is the place to have part of that debate. We could easily have a livestreamed Covid-19 committee, in which members could participate remotely and where officials, Ministers and other witnesses could be made really accountable for the choices or non-choices made in our name. Plenary sessions of the Dáil just don’t cut it. Our media can be such a forum too.

Above all the people are entitled to the respect of not being left in the dark, not being fed opaque and rationed facts and figures, and not being excluded from public discussion and debate on national strategy.

The awfulness of Covid-19 and the really tragic loss of life do not exonerate us from the responsibility to ensure the social and economic wellbeing of the people.

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