Nphet now in control of the country’s economic and social policy
Government badly needs to find alternative strategy to lockdowns
People in Grafton Street in Dublin during the first day of the Level 5 restrictions in the city. The shutting down of almost all retail business, apart from supermarkets, will have a devastating impact on employment and mental health, even though there is little evidence that shopping is a major spreader of Covid-19. Photograph: Damien Eagers/PA
Public confidence in the Government and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has been eroded by the manner in which both have behaved in recent weeks.
That is likely to have serious implications for the level of compliance with what is the most severe lockdown in the European Union as people increasingly question whether those in charge have any coherent strategy.
The Government flip flops on the Nphet demand for a move to a Level 5 lockdown does not inspire confidence that the three Coalition leaders have the courage to make the right decisions in the wider public interest when faced with the conflicting pressures arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nearly three weeks ago the Coalition rejected the peremptory demand from Nphet that the country should move immediately to Level 5. Instead they opted for a tightening of existing Level 3 rules. Then, in the face of insistent pressure from Nphet as the number of infections continued to grow, it appeared last weekend that a move to Level 4 was on the cards.
There have to be serious questions about why Ireland has adopted a harsher form of lockdown than any other EU member state
On Monday, though, it all changed again when the Coalition leaders caved in and decided there was no alternative to a move to Level 5, despite strong objections not only from Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath, who are responsible for the survival of the economy, but from Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly as well.
The Government’s loss of nerve means that Nphet is now in control of the country’s economic and social policy. Yet the people who run it are essentially those who have failed to prepare the health system for the second wave of the virus and are responsible for the shambles that has engulfed the test-and-trace system.
No exit strategy
Between them the Government and Nphet have decided that the only response to the virus is a national lockdown from which there is no exit strategy. If the numbers don’t come down sufficiently by late November will the response be to keep the country in lockdown indefinitely?
There have to be serious questions about why Ireland has adopted a harsher form of lockdown than any other EU member state. It is not as if the infection rate here is the worst. In fact we are in the middle of the league table, well behind countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and France, while ahead of Germany and the Nordic countries.
The only policy on offer from the authorities appears to be an endless series of lockdowns until the virus has run its course, whenever that will be
All of those countries are implementing a mix of measures to try and slow the spread of the virus which, thankfully, is not proving nearly as deadly in terms of deaths as the first wave. So far none of them have implemented an Irish-style lockdown with all the social and economic consequences that it entails.
The shutting down of almost all retail business, apart from supermarkets, will have a devastating impact on employment and mental health, even though there is little evidence that shopping is a major spreader of Covid-19. It does make sense to keep pubs closed but why are shops and hairdressers, who have implemented strict protocols to deal with Covid-19, closed as well?
It hasn’t escaped notice that there are very few women involved in the decision-making process that led to the lockdown. Is it purely a coincidence that GAA championships and rugby internationals will proceed while hairdressers, beauticians, barbers and bookshops are closed?
As well as implementing a more nuanced form of lockdown many other countries have implemented curfews to curb mass gatherings where the virus can spread like wildfire. There appears to be no appetite here for curfews probably because they would be very difficult for the gardaí to enforce.
The level of penalties and the scale of enforcement is another big difference between Ireland and other EU states. There are few sanctions here for individuals who defy restrictions, and that is probably one of the reasons for the resurgence of the virus. As so often happens in this country the law-abiding majority is punished while the irresponsible minority goes on its merry way.
It is impossible to know how effective the lockdown over the coming month will be in reining in the spread of the virus and ensuring that the hospital system is not put under severe pressure. So far at least that has not happened. While Covid-19 hospital admissions have been rising the hospital system still has hundreds of free beds.
The Level 5 lockdown may ensure that the number of infections and hospital admissions slows but, even if it does, there is no chance that Covid-19 will have vanished by early December. The current strategy appears to be an easing of restrictions at that stage to save Christmas but what will happen after that?
The only policy on offer from the authorities appears to be an endless series of lockdowns until the virus has run its course, whenever that will be. Society and the economy will be left in a shattered condition by such repeated hammer blows. The Government badly needs to find the courage and the imagination, so sadly lacking in recent weeks, to come up with an alternative strategy for 2021. Joining a common EU-wide policy to tackle Covid-19 is probably our best hope.