Stephen Collins: State’s Covid response compares well with elsewhere

Mistakes made and costs incurred but HSE has outperformed NHS

People returning from holidays abroad displaying no embarrassment at breaking travel guidelines has caused considerable anger. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

People returning from holidays abroad displaying no embarrassment at breaking travel guidelines has caused considerable anger. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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Amid the understandable public frustration at the latest Covid-19 restrictions, and the slow pace of the vaccine rollout, it is easy to overlook the fact that the performance of the State in the face of the pandemic has been reasonably good. Of course mistakes were made but lessons were learned and corrective action taken at various points over the past year.

A comparison with our nearest neighbours in the UK shows how bad things could have been. The number of people who have died with Covid here has sadly exceeded 3,000 but, to put that figure in context, it is about 40 per cent of the casualty rate in the UK where the total figure is now over 100,000. Imagine the political outrage here if the situation was reversed.

The contrast between the chaotic leadership of Boris Johnson at every step along the way since the virus struck and that provided by Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin is striking. It is also worth noting that the National Health Service in the UK has not coped with the pandemic nearly as well as our own much-criticised Health Service Executive.

Television coverage of people gaily returning from holidays abroad displaying no embarrassment at breaking government travel guidelines has caused considerable anger

Of course, the performance of the UK on Covid is one of the worst in the world so the comparison is not all that flattering to this country. Still the Irish death rate per million is less than half of that in Spain and Italy and slightly below that of Germany. It certainly gives the lie to the widely believed notion that we have a health service that is far inferior to that of most developed countries.

International travel

That doesn’t mean there are grounds for complacency. The hospital system was almost overwhelmed by the sudden surge in cases after Christmas and, with hindsight, the Government decision to ease the restrictions in December was a mistake. Whether people would have continued to adhere to a strict lockdown over Christmas is a moot point but the lesson for the Government and people is that there can be no relaxation until the numbers are substantially lower.

One issue that has caused particular public annoyance in recent weeks is the shambolic approach by the authorities here to international travel with minimal effort being made to ensure that people went into self-isolation after returning from abroad. Belated action is now under way to tighten up the system with enforced quarantine arrangements.

As well as the health consequences, the State has had to deal with the potentially disastrous economic fallout

Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party on Wednesday evening that international travel accounted for only 1 per cent or less of Covid cases in the country. That may well be the case but the lack of attention given to implementing an enforceable self-isolation system has eroded some public confidence in the overall strategy to combat Covid.

Television coverage of people gaily returning from holidays abroad displaying no embarrassment at breaking government travel guidelines has caused considerable anger. The vast majority of people have complied with onerous restrictions on their lives over the past year so the sight of the anti-social minority flaunting the rules without a care is truly galling and demands a firm response.

At this week’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting, the Taoiseach said that the key to reopening the country is suppressing the virus and getting a critical mass of the population vaccinated. The pace of the vaccination rollout is likely to be affected by the row between Astra Zeneca and the EU but there is nothing the Government can do about that.

Vaccination of NI

One thing the UK has got right is the speed of its vaccination programme. That should have a directly positive impact on the Republic, given that the entire population of Northern Ireland will be vaccinated in a few months. It will reduce the level of Covid on the island and should eliminate the spread of infection from North to South.

As well as having to cope with the health consequences of the virus, the State has had to deal with the potentially disastrous economic fallout. The swift introduction of a pandemic payment in the spring was critically important in averting widespread hardship across the community. It was also vital to preserve a sense of social solidarity in the face of the pandemic threat.

The publication of its annual report on public debt by the Department of Finance shows the sheer scale of the extra spending undertaken to deal with the emergency. The ratio of public debt to gross national income (GNI) rose to 108 per cent last year. In monetary terms that comes to €219 billion. This is equivalent to €44,000 for every person resident in the State, a figure among the highest in the developed world. With further debt accumulation expected this year, the per capita figure is set to reach about €47,700.

Massive extra spending on this scale was required to deal with the war on Covid but, like all wars, it will have to be paid for in time. With luck, economic growth will reduce the proportion of debt to national income but a return to prudent spending policies when circumstances permit will also be required. Finding a way of doing that will be political challenge when the Covid war is over.

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