COVID Island

As we hobble from lockdown to lockdown, who's to blame?

You have to give the Irish government credit where it’s due. It managed to squander so much in such short space of time. And all it cost is a few thousand lives. This is where we currently find ourselves as the third wave of COVID-19 hits. 

On Twitter healthcare workers have described the current situation in hospitals in distressing and stark terms. And the worst likely hasn’t even arrived yet. The dogs on the streets know why we’re here. But apparently the columnists in Ireland’s major publications don’t. 

What happened was that a neoliberal government put business as usual ahead of people. 

Attack the messenger

Back in March the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) urged the government to enact a national lockdown. Its chair, Dr. Tony Holohan, warned that if it didn’t then the health service would be overrun and the death toll huge. By 12 March NPHET called on the government to ban mass gatherings and close all the schools. It also called for the health department to “greatly strengthen contact tracing”. 

By 24 March it was essentially calling for a complete closure of all non-essential businesses, such as cafés, pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, cinemas. At the time Ireland was recording more than 1,000 new COVID cases on a daily basis. It took another three days before the government introduced a full lockdown, including a ban on non-essential travel.

The earliest reported case of the virus in Ireland was on 28 February. Chinese authorities first confirmed the presence of a SARS-like virus on 31 December 2019 in Wuhan. Our leaders knew what was coming.

Of course, once the first lockdown appeared to be working its magic the economy was reopened. And as you’d expect, the virus began to spread and another lockdown beckoned on 21 October. By the time we exited it Ireland had the lowest incidence of the virus in Europe.

At that stage people also well understood how the virus was spread and where. Pubs, cafés, schools, anywhere that people were in close and regular contact with each other, make ideal conditions for the virus to circulate amongst the general population. This was not news to journalists and politicians.

But you might be mistaken for thinking that. Before the government finally enacted a second lockdown, and with cases on the rise, Leo Varadkar launched an extraordinary attack on NPHET on national television. Varadkar, sometimes taoiseach other times tánaiste, went on Prime Time on 5 October to say the advice of Dr. Holohan and NPHET “hadn’t been thought through”. They had made the mistake of recommending a return to a Level 5 lockdown. 

Once again non-essential businesses would have to close and travel restrictions introduced. It would also ensure that virus didn’t spread, lives would be spared, and the health service wouldn’t be overwhelmed. Just over two weeks later Ireland entered a second lockdown, Varadkar be damned. 

During this time Irish journalists with substantial platforms continued to push back against NPHET. In late October Ciara Kelly, during a segment on her show on Newstalk, accused NPHET of “flying in the face of the WHO” arguing that its call for a lockdown went against WHO advice. She said that, “on balance, yes, we are getting it wrong”. 

After the second lockdown ended an article she wrote for the Irish Independent appeared with the headline “Level 5 came at a huge cost, and made no real difference”. In the article itself she played down the effects of COVID, writing that “Only a very small minority become seriously ill”. A lockdown, therefore, “isn’t clever”. 

In November Pat Leahy wrote in the Irish Times in defence of the government choosing to ignore NPHET’s advice on not reopening too soon. Not wasting any time Leahy got straight to the point in the very first line. He opened his piece by writing:

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.

The lockdown, he said, had to end because it wasn’t economically or socially feasible. And even if this resulted in “several hundred cases a day for a period in the second half of December, that may be a price worth paying”. He also argued that the second wave wasn’t as serious as the first so a second lockdown was premature. That the former might be true because of the latter was apparently beyond him. 

In a letter dated 26 November NPHET warned the government about easing restrictions too soon. Although a lot of progress had been made in slowing the spread of the virus, it pointed out that “the epidemiological situation remains fragile”. It also cautioned that Christmas and New Year will bring increased travel, both international and national, and increased socialisation and “inter-generational mixing”. 

At the time NPHET sent the letter the five-day average number of cases being reported was 293. And the estimated R number was between 0.7 and 1.0. Based on this, it suggested a “phased and stepwise” approach to reopening. NPHET was very clear in its conclusion:

The health services remain particularly vulnerable. Hospitalisations and admissions to critical care has not fallen very substantially over the [sic] time. We remain especially vulnerable to a rise in reproduction number given the ongoing high case numbers per day and the high likelihood of significantly increased socialisation given the time of year. In simple terms many people may not follow public health advice to limit social activity.

On 27 November the media reported that the government would choose to ignore the appeals of NPHET. The economy would fully return to business as usual from 4 December. So we entered the Christmas season with the government allowing for the reopening of pubs and restaurants and people were once again free to visit the homes of others.

“At the gates of hell”

We’re now reaping the storm sown by the government. 

Ireland currently has the highest rate of COVID-19 in the world. As of Sunday 10 January, there are 1,452 people hospitalised due to COVID with 100 of those hospitalisations having occurred in the 24 hours leading up to then. Of that, 125 are in Intensive Care Units (ICU). By comparison, seven days earlier on Sunday 3 January there were 685 in hospital and 62 in ICU. The R number is currently somewhere between 2.4 and 3.0.

Healthcare workers have been brutally honest, describing the health system as being “at the gates of hell”. 

The response of those in the press who rowed in behind the government, with full knowledge of what would happen if restrictions were lifted too early, has been to claim that the public demanded they be lifted in the first place. And, naturally, this is the complete opposite of what the public supported. Polling data on this has been very clear, with the majority supporting restrictions. 

During an interview this morning with Claire Byrne on Radio 1, Varadkar admitted that “the situation is deteriorating”. When asked if the government was wrong to reopen the hospitality industry before Christmas, he said “I think that’s too simplistic”. He went on to say he rejects such “binary thinking” which suggests “if one thing had been done differently everything would be different”. Feigning lack of information he claimed:

If we all knew the situation we’d be in now would we have gone to Level 3 at all? Perhaps not. Perhaps we would have stayed at Level 5 for a while longer.

Micheál Martin’s contribution during a different interview was equally lacking in accountability. He insisted that the government hadn’t sent mixed messages to the public. And that the government acted responsibly in the lead-up to the holidays. 

Online, people’s anger seethes through our screens. After politicians and journalists spent months undermining NPHET and then ordered that we come out of lockdown too early in order to cater to business interests, lives are being lost and irrevocably damaged. Schools, which were meant to reopen, have remained closed after the unions essentially told the government where to go. 

What’s coming at us over the next few weeks will be nothing short of disastrous. There’s plenty of blame to be portioned out. And most of us know where that blame lies.