Older generation needs to return favour after sacrifices of young people

Locking down our society indefinitely to protect the fearful is not an option

The long-term impact of Covid on society cannot be ignored. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The long-term impact of Covid on society cannot be ignored. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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The Government has no option but to take the Delta Covid variant into account as it ponders the further lifting of restrictions on July 5th. But it also needs to heed worrying signs that Irish society has been panicked to such an extent over the past 18 months that a large number of people may never return to normal living.

We have had a longer and more restrictive lockdown than most countries in the world but, even before the Delta variant became the latest blot on the horizon, it seems that a significant proportion of the population had been terrified into backing an indefinite lockdown, despite the successful rollout of the vaccine programme and the small number of people now hospitalised by the virus.

Last week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll revealed that while half all voters thought the Government is proceeding to reopen society at the correct pace, almost as many believed that society and business should be opened up at a much slower rate than planned.

The question not just for the Government, but for society at large, is how to adjust from a strategy of trying to beat the virus to one of living with it

Unsurprisingly the over 65s are the most cautious, although most are now vaccinated and at little risk. When asked if society should get back to the way it was before Covid when most people are vaccinated, only 32 per cent of people said yes, with twice that number believing that some precautions should remain in place indefinitely. A significant minority of people said they were anxious about socialising during the summer.

There is a massive divergence on age grounds too on all of the questions about Covid, with older people more frightened and less in favour of a return to normal. Unsurprisingly young take a very different view and are looking forward to getting back to normal life as quickly as possible.

There is little doubt that the Delta variant will become the prevailing one in the coming weeks and it will almost certainly have an impact on the case numbers. However, given the successful rollout of the vaccine among the vulnerable older age groups, the impact in terms of hospitalisations should not been anything like as severe as it was in the earlier waves.

In recent days there have been around 40 people in hospital with the number in intensive care in the low teens. Given that there are about 14,500 hospital beds in the country, with the capacity for around 350 intensive care beds, there does not appear to be any danger of the hospital system being overwhelmed by the Delta variant.

Have the vaccinated over-60s a right to deprive people in their 20s and 30s of a social life for another summer?

That does not make it any easier for the Government to decide what to do next. If it proceeds with the planned phased reopening and there is a surge of cases during July it will attract criticism from its opponents, but if it opts to postpone lifting restrictions until the vaccination programme is further advanced it will draw the fire not just of the hospitality industry but also from a large cohort of people who are desperate for a return to some semblance of normal life.

The question not just for the Government, but for society at large, is how to adjust from a strategy of trying to beat the virus to one of living with it once most people have been vaccinated. The issue was raised at the Fine Gael parliamentary party on Wednesday as speculation grew about the prospect of another delay in the easing of restrictions.

A number of TDs and senators, including Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan, spoke of the need for the Government to outline a clear path for living with the virus, saying the country should not be shut down in a “yo-yo” fashion. Senator Barry Ward told colleagues that while the Government had to listen to health experts, other factors like the impact on the economy and society had to be taken into account and the Coalition “must be seen to govern”.

In truly authoritarian hands, the powers we have ceded to the State during the pandemic could undermine our freedom in ways we never contemplated

There are some very important questions here to which there are no obvious right and wrong answers; Have the vaccinated over-60s a right to deprive people in their 20s and 30s of a social life for another summer? The young have undertaken enormous personal sacrifices to protect their elders for the past 18 months and maybe it is time for the older generation to return the favour.

People have to take individual responsibility along with a sensible attitude to risk if normal life is to resume. Those who feel they are vulnerable to the virus can make their own choices about who, if anybody, they want to meet, where they want to go and where to avoid. Locking down society indefinitely to protect the fearful is not an option.

The long-term impact of Covid on society cannot be ignored. Estonia’s prime minister Kaja Kalles told the Financial Times during the week of her fear that some countries have been so slow to relax restrictions that it could do lasting damage to western liberal democracies. “What we have seen in this Covid crisis, this urge for a strong hands or an authoritarian way of governing is deep in our societies, even in some countries you would never believe.” In truly authoritarian hands, the powers we have ceded to the State during the pandemic could undermine our freedom in ways we never contemplated.

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