Still not too late to reap benefits of a zero-covid strategy
Strategy co-ordinated with North could allow unrestricted domestic travel within 12 weeks
Realistic estimations from experts suggest it will be September or October at the earliest before some element of herd immunity can be achieved through vaccination. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/Getty Images
The abruptness with which the Government announced a third lockdown took many people by surprise. But to others it was inevitable, and merely confirmed that it is the coronavirus case numbers that dictate the level of restrictions, not the Government. Warnings that daily case numbers could be out of control by the first week of January made Government action inevitable.
Among the repercussions were the cancellation of much-anticipated family visits and large numbers of job losses. Many in the hospitality industry who were relying on doing a good trade during the festive season were knocked back at having to, for the third time, close up shop.
All this raises the question of whether this is the best we can hope for; to yoyo in and out of lockdowns for up to another year, with all the uncertainty this brings for our social and economic lives.
There is another way. It involves the near-complete elimination of Covid-19 within our borders – just like we achieved in June – and the rigorous tracing of outbreaks, as well as strict monitoring of travel into the country including quarantining of those eligible to enter.
This would allow us, once sufficiently low numbers have been achieved, to open up the economy for longer and with far fewer restrictions than can responsibly be considered at present.
Such a strategy has succeeded in countries as diverse in culture, profile and location as New Zealand, South Korea, Australia and China, where the virus originated. In these countries, much of life has returned to normal.
While the impending rollout of the various Covid-19 vaccines means there is light at the end of tunnel, I believe most people, including many in government, are underestimating the length of time it will take for the vaccines to take practical effect. We don’t yet know the availability, rate of take-up or the true efficacy of the various vaccines. Realistic estimations from experts suggest it will be September or October at the earliest before some element of herd immunity can be achieved.
This means it is not too late to reap significant economic, social and health benefits from an effective strategy to almost completely eliminate Covid-19 within our borders and, with an all-island strategy, on the island of Ireland.
The first step would be effectively communicating what we are trying to achieve; rather than moving to Level 5 until a particular date, a target should be set to reach a certain number of daily cases – low double digits. From there, vigorous implementation of a testing-and-tracing framework can keep case numbers low. But the target must be in case numbers, rather than days of lockdown.
That time in lockdown should be used to properly resource public-health doctors, build proper testing and tracing infrastructure, and implement and actually enforce proper travel restrictions. This needs to include compulsory quarantining in hotels, and tougher restrictions on non-essential travel. The current farcical travel arrangements amount to effectively asking those arriving in the country to make their own risk assessments.
Part of such a strategy would include promising to lift restrictions on a county-by-county basis, as case numbers are brought down. Open regions (those with good numbers) would see unrestricted travel between them.
Being part of a small island should bring distinct advantages in tackling the virus but to date, it seems, little serious effort has been made to agree on an all-island strategy. However, with Northern Ireland now in a restrictive lockdown at the same time as the Republic, it provides the perfect opportunity to negotiate a co-ordinated strategy. We clearly have a shared objective to suppress the virus on both sides of the Border. Failing that, separate restrictions on travel around the Border region should be considered.
The current strategy of yoyoing from lockdown to lockdown creates huge instability and the best way to address this is to pursue a strategy of near-elimination. While it’s clear that harsher restrictions over the next couple of months are now required, the benefit of such a strategy is that it can lead to a situation where our domestic economy, our social and economic life can return to near normal, albeit without outside travel.
Imagine a situation where Irish residents could move unrestricted around the island from, say, mid-March; what a boon to the hospitality sector and think of how many people could get back to work. Such a situation may be only 12 or so difficult but do-able weeks away, if we show the ambition of other countries. Government has already crossed a significant Rubicon by banning travel from Britain, our most significant travel partner. And while we didn’t properly do test and trace in the summer, there’s no reason we can’t get it right now.
Individually, these suggestions may be a collection of imperfect measures, but they can combine to make an almost perfect strategy. There will still be a need for masks and hand-washing. People will still have to give contact details in restaurants and pubs. There will continue to be some restrictions. But such a situation seems very appealing compared with the one we currently face.
Róisín Shortall is joint leader of the Social Democrats