Pat Leahy: Government right to exert its authority over Nphet

Lockdown costs €1 billion a month – there was no choice but to reopen the economy

It is now clear that the second wave of the virus is considerably less dangerous than the first. Photograph: Getty Images

It is now clear that the second wave of the virus is considerably less dangerous than the first. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Exiting the lockdown and allowing the social and economic life of the country to reopen is a gamble for the Government, but one it has to take. Yes, the numbers of infections will begin to rise again in the coming weeks as a result of the increased social interactions allowed by the easing of restrictions. It is a long way to the week before Christmas, when the Government wants to remove the ban on home visits, and it is possible that a grim-faced Tony Holohan, barely suppressing the urge to holler “I-told-you-so”, will be reporting several hundred cases a day by then. That’s the vista that keeps people in Government awake at night.

Yet there is no choice but to reopen.

I say this for three reasons. Two have got to do with the costs of lockdown, and the third is because it is now clear that the second wave of the virus is considerably less dangerous than the first.

To combine all those reasons, I think that even though we may be faced with several hundred cases a day for a period in the second half of December, that may be a price worth paying.

There are two principal costs of lockdown: economic and social.

Will low interest rates and accommodating central banks continue to be a feature of life? Let’s hope so. Can we be certain they will? Nope

Economic first – as Paschal Donohoe explained (again) to the Cabinet sub-committee meeting on Thursday night – the costs to the exchequer of maintaining chunks of the economy in a deep freeze are enormous: about €1 billion a month.

The loss of economic confidence is less tangible, but perhaps even more serious. The longer lockdown goes on, and the more people fear another one next year, the more the prospect of a rapid recovery recedes.

Readers who are fed up of the repetition of this point hereabouts should look away now. But it is just not sustainable to keep borrowing at the current rate.

Quick rough sums: it costs about €80 billion a year to run the country. We are currently borrowing about €20 billion of that. We plan to borrow the same sum next year. The national debt is headed for €240 billion by the end of next year.

That must be serviced and refinanced as we go along (rather than repaid, as such) in circumstances that are inherently unpredictable. Will low interest rates and accommodating central banks continue to be a feature of life? Let’s hope so. Can we be certain they will? Nope. What happens if they’re not? Er. . . . .

As ever, look around to help us understand.

In the UK the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, warned MPs that the “economic emergency” caused by Covid-19 had only just begun. The British economy is set for its biggest decline in 300 years. Public borrowing will rise to its highest level since the second World War.

Here we need to promote and sustain the maximum amount of economic activity possible so that the taxes it produces can pay for the running of the country.

The 'in it together' sense of the first lockdown has given way to a sense that this time people are on their own

But if the economic costs of continued lockdown are astronomical, the social costs are probably more serious – and perhaps more long-lasting as experienced in the lives of many citizens.

We are seeing an increase in domestic violence perpetrated mostly by men against women and children. Of course this is a complex, multilayered problem, but one thing we know is simple enough: the longer lockdown goes on the more women and children will suffer from violent and abusive men.

Calls to domestic violence helplines increased 40 per cent during the first lockdown. As Sheila Wayman reported in The Irish Times this week, there was another surge in calls on the night in October that the second lockdown was first mooted.

You can imagine what is going on behind closed doors in thousands of homes. Whatever it is, lockdown is making it worse. This has to be part of the picture, part of the political decision-making too.

And this is just one of the hidden social catastrophes that results from shutting down our society. The Coolmine Drug Treatment Centre said this week that it had handled 500 extra calls a month over the summer which it said were directly linked to issues caused by the lockdown.

Doctors have repeatedly warned about rising levels of anxiety, depression and self-harm. The “in it together” sense of the first lockdown has given way to a sense that this time people are on their own.

While the social and economic costs of the lockdown have continued to mount, it has become clear that the second wave is very different to the first.

While infections rose sharply in September and October, they declined just as quickly in the final 10 days of October and throughout November. Moreover, hospitalisations and ICU admissions have never got out of control, or anything remotely like it.

And most important of all, deaths from the virus remain at a minimal level. Overall deaths are no higher than you would expect for this time of year. The CSO reported this week that Covid is only the fourth highest cause of death this year.

Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy summed it up fairly in a thoughtful Dáil speech this week: “the hammer of lockdown, designed to fight something far more deadly, is still being used now. The facts have changed, and our strategy has not.”

The most significant thing that happened this week is that the Government, quite deliberately and carefully, exerted its authority over public health experts. As a result the strategy to which Murphy referred to is changing.

It is an important moment.

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