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Una Mullally: Six false narratives about Level 3 Covid restrictions

Narratives that get a lot of airtime such as ‘people don’t want a hard lockdown’ may not be true

Narrative 1: Avoiding a hard lockdown is about personal responsibility.

On Monday, Josepha Madigan - interviewed on RTÉ’s Drivetime - repeated over and over again that it all comes down to personal responsibility and the actions of the individual. Actually, Ireland entered this pandemic with a stretched health system with little capacity for crisis response. That does not seem to have changed in half a year. Of course the fundamentals of individual behaviour are paramount, everyone knows that, but lockdown is also about ICU capacity and general hospital capacity. The health system has been the elephant in the room from the get go, which is why you rarely hear politicians address its failings head on, as it’s easier to point to us.

Narrative 2: People don’t want a hard lockdown.

Not true. The public are ahead (or behind, depending on your point of view) the politicians on this. The ESRI’s research shows that people are worried, but also ready and willing to take the hit on stricter measures. Some 40 per cent of people think the measures (before a national Level 3 lockdown was announced) were “insufficient” compared to 12 per cent in May. Just 7 per cent think government measures have been “too extreme”.

“The major picture that comes through from the tracking surveys and other evidence is that consistently, since about June, the public has wanted the Government to be more cautious and put on more restrictions,” Prof Pete Lunn, the head of the behavioural research unit at the ESRI told The Irish Times this week. He also pointed out that media debate is cluttered with lobby groups and journalists who have particular points of view.

Narrative 3: We should listen to economists.

There is a glut of economists who hold remarkably similar points of view being platformed in media. They are primarily surrogates for capitalism, who scaremonger and emphasise “the economy” as a monolith above all else. From the Institute of European and International Affairs’ Dan O’Brien making the extraordinary claim on Claire Byrne’s radio programme on Monday that moving to Level 5 would move Ireland “three steps closer” (whatever that means) to bankruptcy, or author and commentator Cormac Lucey later in the day - on Drivetime - leaning into unhelpful military metaphors, it’s clear that there needs to be a greater diversity of points of view on economics in the public sphere. We need fewer rigid thinkers, and more imagination and compassion.


Narrative 4: The public is being reckless.

Not true. For the most part the public is generally fearful and obedient. Ireland has high levels of compliance and strong social cohesion, but the media skews towards covering anomalies in compliance, and highlighting fringe bad practices as opposed to the everyday mask-wearing, distancing, hand-washing. “Four million people washed their hands three times today and didn’t see any friends,” is not as juicy a story as video footage of young fellas running on to a GAA pitch. It’s not that the latter is right, it’s that the former is more common.

Narrative 5: Hard lockdowns don’t work.

Yes they do. The spring lockdown flattened the curve, suppressed the virus in the community, and lowered the caseload. The paradox is, when you do well, the fruits of that wellness - opening things back up - are what cause the infection rate to increase again. There are no waves, it’s more like the bellows of an accordion, with the air - some of it bad - filling the space when the thing expands, and dissipating when it contracts. Lockdowns cause massive problems, obviously, but when it comes to stopping the spread, they do work when adhered to.

Narrative 6: Moving to Level 3 is the right decision.

In the eyes of the public, nobody owns this decision more than Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. As usual, he upstaged Micheál Martin, who was left giving a nothing-burger of a speech at government buildings, while Varadkar was spilling information and opinion all over an RTÉ studio on Monday night.

Yet instead of calmly and courteously laying out the differences between government and Nphet, Varadkar launched an extraordinary attack on Dr Tony Holohan, who is probably the most respected pandemic-related figure in Ireland. Instead of characterising a difference in opinion, which was exposed by poor communication channels, Varadkar picked his side: government versus “experts” who don’t get the big picture. He effectively humiliated Holohan and the message was clear: back in your box, Nphet.

There is no doubt that moving to Level 5 would have been a financially crippling and distressing step for many. But we don’t yet know what the cost of not taking that step is, or will be. Let’s see where we’re at in a few weeks. One wonders will a decision that has satisfied economists but worried doctors and scientists keep us safe?