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How to get Ireland’s reopening right, maybe

Integral to the annual cycle of things is the arrival of swallows to our barn in mid-April and their departure again five months later. There are two nests up in the rafters and, last year, the first swallows took up residence on 16 April. This year, although I have seen swallows nearby, our own nests remain vacant ten days later.

The apparent “lateness” could well be within the bell curve of normality, just that bit closer to its edge than the middle. The cold weather across Europe for much of April may have been a factor. But such is the imprint of COVID on every aspect of life I did allow myself to wonder if, coming from Africa, the birds had been obliged to undergo mandatory nesting quarantine in Dublin before moving west to Clare. A notion deserving a second’s, if not a second, thought!

The possibility that we might finally be heading out of the woods on COVID was boosted when I opened The Irish Times of last Saturday. Just below the front page masthead was a pointer to a feature in the magazine: “75 THINGS TO LOOK FORWARD TO” when we get back to something resembling “normality”. And below that again, a steer towards an article in its Weekend Review: “Reopening IRELAND How to get it right”.

I went straight to the latter, a piece by its Health Editor, Paul Cullen. The headline above the actual article repeated the front page signpost, except this time, all of it in capitals. However, the sub-headline moved things in a slightly different direction: “What could possibly go wrong? Quite a bit actually”

The main headline above the on-line version of the article takes up the latter theme “What could go wrong when Ireland reopens? Quite a bit”. The sub-headline reverts to the notion of getting it right, but again with a variation: “Let’s get it right this time”

You don’t have to be a genius or a pedant to recognise that listing all the things that can go wrong is not the same as telling us how to get things right. And neither is urging us to get it right this time the same as telling us what specifically we should do to achieve that. So, I began to doubt whether the article would live up to the initial billing of being a clear recipe or road map for navigating our way out of the dark cave of lockdown and onward to the bright sunlit uplands of post-pandemic normality.

A recurring motif in one episode of Fawlty Towers is a hotel guest repeating his drinks order with ever increasing volume of exasperation: “A gin and orange, a lemon squash and a scotch and water please!!!” The drinks never arrive and neither does the promise of this article ever deliver.

Mr. Cullen begins with an assessment of where we are now.

“The nightmares of last January seem so far away.” The figures are going in the right direction.

We have the fourth lowest incidence of COVID-19 in Europe; the second lowest ICU occupancy. …case numbers have been dropping gently for months.

Vaccines have been dispensed to most of the most vulnerable and the volume of doses administered is having a discernible effect in pushing case numbers down. Testing and tracing “is more agile now”.

On the other hand, case numbers are still “almost twice as high as the lowest target we were aiming for back in January”. The virus is raging elsewhere around the world. There is continuing risk of new, dangerous variants and still some lingering fragility around vaccination supply and the pace of the rollout.

The trick is to keep cases falling while allowing more freedoms, something so far only Israel and the UK have achieved in any meaningful way.

The tentative recent easing of restrictions (restarting childcare and reopening schools) has not pushed up case numbers. The next round of “easing” is likely to be similarly modest and staggered.

That strikes me as a fair summary snapshot of the present and probably also a fair, if highly general, prediction of the government’s likely approach. But Mr. Cullen’s promise was not to tell us what the government would do (we could have guessed that for ourselves) but what they should do — how to get it right.

Mr. Cullen doffs his cap in that direction by setting out a couple of third party views on how we should go. First, David Cullinane of Sinn Féin who advocates what might be called a twin-track approach of more easements accompanied by enhanced protections to counter any adverse effects.

Cullinane talks of a “hierarchy of easing” starting with non-essential retail, outdoor activities and sport, but he says this has to be balanced by beefing up contact tracing, more checks on travellers and an acceleration of the vaccine rollout.

In other words, Mr. Cullinane favours plenty of apple pie provided it comes with no calories.

Then he has Professor Gerry Killeen of the “zero COVID” ISAG Group. “It takes one particle of a new virus variant in someone, and we’re back to square one.” We should be tightening restrictions, closing still open non-essential retail (“€2 shops and coffee bars”) and meat plants and extending mandatory hotel quarantine to travellers from ALL countries, to get daily case numbers below 100 by the end of May. In other words, fear should continue to stalk the land.

Nothing new or surprising in either of those perspectives. But they are only “views”. When are we going to be taken out of our misery and told exactly how to get it right?

Instead, Mr. Cullen next takes a detour down memory lane, diving deeply into the history of the last 13 months of lockdowns and re-openings, before resurfacing in the present:

We are now in a different and better position, notably through the vaccination of more than 1.2 million of the population.

It is not smartass nitpicking to mention that Mr. Cullen confuses the total number of doses administered altogether with the total number of people vaccinated. As of last Saturday, according to the HSE, 987,681 first doses and 398,072 second doses had been administered, so less than a million had been vaccinated at all of whom less than half were fully vaccinated. The Health Editor of a serious newspaper should not make that kind of “rookie” error.

We can also learn from the experience of other countries.

But, if the smorgasbord of international experience points to a clear path for Ireland, Mr. Cullen doesn’t decipher it. Instead, we get a smattering of vague generalities like these from which no conclusions are drawn:

Israel has built on its vaccine rollout success with clear rules on the benefits accruing to the fully immunised and a bias towards outdoor activities. Chile, despite also vaccinating a big proportion of its population, is suffering another surge of cases, possibly because it opened up too soon.

“Possibly”, “may” and “could” are great standby words for journalists who would like to appear to make a meaningful prediction without having to commit to its reliability.

By now, Mr. Cullen has turned into the home stretch of his 1,700 word odyssey. A few more unmemorable comments from Mr. Cullinane and Professor Killeen bring us safely into the harbour of his overall verdict.

Given the caution that abounds among those making the decisions, it is certain the pace of reopening will be heavily influenced by vaccine rollout. While this is proceeding, plans for further acceleration remain wrapped in a fog of uncertainty. It is clear the majority of the population won’t be fully vaccinated until the autumn.

At this stage, therefore, we may have to accept that August will be the new June — and that our best hope of a real summer might be an Indian summer.

Mr. Cullen could have borrowed Winston Churchill’s description of Russia and told us that the future of COVID in Ireland is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Or the rueful reflection of Yogi Berra who claimed to be able to predict everything with the unfortunate exception of the future. Mr. Cullen has only a sketchy idea of where we might be in six months’ time and, to be fair, the same applies to the rest of us. Hopes for sure, expectations maybe, but certainties, no chance.

In the weeks leading up to the prospective announcement of further “loosening” of restrictions for the period from the end of this month, journalistic assessments of the situation, as opposed to day-to-day factual coverage, have fallen mainly into two categories.

The first is reheating the ups and downs of the lockdowns and re-openings that have already happened. Nobody in the country is wiser than journalists about what should have been done when — in the past. The wise words of her majesty, Queen Elizabeth, in 2011 don’t even make it as far as the backs of their minds.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.

But they are rarely as good at playing the game on Sunday as they are at quarterbacking on Monday. The common explanation for picking over the cold coals of the past is that we will be condemned to repeat our mistakes if we don’t face up to them. That is fine, but lessons are only really useful if they are for now, not for then. Journalists and commentators should state clearly what they believe the relevant lessons actually are and why, not just possibilities. Then, time and events can be their judge.

The second and dominant strand has been entirely idle speculation on the content of the upcoming package of measures. These days, real news about what has actually happened in the world is largely just raw material for speculation about what might happen next and later, verbal confetti at the best of times, but all the more so in the case of changes to restrictions. These will not just emerge or have to be chiselled out of government but will be openly announced. That page of the future will write itself in an orderly way, whereupon the circus caravans of speculation will move quickly on to what might happen next.

As a recipe for the consumption of daily “news”, mild attentiveness remains the better rule than avid concentration. It’s mostly a wall of noise around which the occasional signal has difficulty being heard. And I am still no wiser about how to get our reopening right.



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