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The dam of public patience has already cracked and broken

Community transmission is going to remain high until mass vaccination makes an impression

The official but “anonymous Government source” (the AGS) had spoken on the outlook for lifting the lockdown well before the Cabinet had its meeting to consider the matter. Most people in Leinster House have a very good idea who the AGS is – widely reputed to be a very ambitious Minister who spends an inordinate amount of time talking to the media off the record. The AGS even told one newspaper this week that the Cabinet had recently failed to adequately dampen down public expectations.

And so it has become clear that the plan for the Easter holidays is to have no plan – in case any coherent roadmap would be misinterpreted by the impatient public as an optimistic omen that the end of lockdown is in sight.

The public mood is not merely monitored; it is to some extent created

We do know that the health establishment is constantly conducting rolling public opinion surveys, and that helpful parts of that research are fed out to the media from time to time. We are all being monitored carefully.

And you don’t have to be Prof Dolores Cahill to feel a little uneasy about that. The public mood is not merely monitored; it is to some extent created. Media advertisements “brought to you by the Government of Ireland” or by State-funded or State-owned agencies in support of solidarity serve twin purposes – they subsidise cash-starved (and sometimes unchallenging) media and they feed into public opinion to be surveyed, reported and fed into policymaking.

Our friend, the AGS, also plays a major part in mood creation. “Grim” was the adjective given to the Nphet’s current analysis in “off-the-record” briefings by the AGS. Can we see the grim analysis, please?

We are, we are told, at a tipping point. The next few weeks are critical. So critical, in fact, that even to inform the public that they could plan for a family holiday in Ireland for July or August would be extremely risky, as it might be seen as reason to relax a little in the meantime. Even if we are to be guided by data rather than by dates, it must be possible to give people a hint as to whether such plans can or should be made.

Seasonal aspects of the pandemic and of social behaviour are obvious and irresistible. You simply cannot drive the population back into their own houses for May and June

Figures for hospitalisations, ICU treatment and mortality have improved but mathematical modellers in Nphet are spooked by community transmission rates and R-numbers which remain stubbornly high. But should they be surprised?

We are constantly told that the public is hugely compliant with lockdown regulations. And that is what people may tell pollsters. But it seems that many people apply the regulations rather flexibly to themselves. Some building operations have quietly recommenced. Road traffic is picking up and road blocks won’t prevent that.

The truth is that the dam of public patience has already cracked and broken. With longer evenings and warmer weather, younger generations have taken to the outdoors. Walks in the parks or down the Grand Canal or along the Dodder valley tell me their own tale. Reopening the schools and associated activity must be a driver of community transmission too. The virus doesn’t distinguish radically between 17 year olds and 19 year olds.

Community transmission is going to remain high until mass vaccination makes an impression. Seasonal aspects of the pandemic and of social behaviour are obvious and irresistible. You simply cannot drive the population back into their own houses for May and June. We have to plan accordingly.

There are real probabilities that prolonging the lockdown will cost lives through reduction in access to diagnosis and treatments for non-Covid conditions

One interesting issue has received very little media coverage in Ireland – that of non-hospital treatments for Covid-19. Are patients with confirmed symptoms actually treated with available drugs to reduce the chances of their being admitted to hospital? Or is the only conventional, non-hospital treatment a combination of advised isolation and paracetamol? Maybe this issue is being addressed. But we should know. If a new wave threatens, it may be very important.

There are risks to any relaxation in the lockdown. But there are known risks in prolonging it too. Those risks are not just social and economic. There are real probabilities that prolonging the lockdown will cost lives through reduction in access to diagnosis and treatments for non-Covid conditions. There is a certainty that prolonging the lockdown means damaging the social, economic, psychological and psychiatric wellbeing and fabric of our community.

We have to hope that vaccination is driven forward as fast as possible – seven days a week (not five). If you want to use the word “grim”, it may be more applicable to the administrative efficiency of some vaccination centres. One very credible volunteer medical practitioner vaccinator gave me a quite depressing account of the underperformance, inefficiencies and delays he witnessed at a Dublin centre recently.

The HSE has to treat vaccination as an emergency. Even if supplies are limited, the case for using them as quickly as possible is unanswerable.