The Covid-19 strategy in Ireland starts to unravel


At the beginning of the week it was reported that the 14-day average of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 in the Irish State had risen to 22.1 compared to 18.6 for the UK and 16.3 for Germany.  The Acting Chief Medical Officer warned this was because people were socialising with each other “recklessly”, the disease was spreading “really widely” among younger people and was likely to spread to older people “unless we change what we are doing, and do something different.”

“We are seeing outbreaks among younger people, but once it gets into nursing homes we would see a much higher mortality.”  Meanwhile ‘senior Government sources’ complained about growing anxiety about “Covid fatigue” among the public.

As a result the Government announced a series of new measures this week, with immediate effect, and promised to provide a new plan for the management of the virus over the next six to nine months.

It was reported at the same time that the 14-day average of Covid-19 cases per 100,000 had increased to 26, up from four earlier in the year.  The Health Minister noted that “we are at tipping point.  Ireland’s rate of growth in new cases over the last two weeks is the fourth highest in Europe.  In the last two months we have gone from a low of 61 cases in one particular week to 533 cases last week.”

The Taoiseach announced that “if the current increase continues, it will be impossible to stop the spread of the virus to our most vulnerable and most compromised”, while The Irish Times reported that ‘there are significant concerns that a big increase in cases is on the way in the coming days.’  All this when it has also been reported that the test and trace system has been slowing down.

To put this in context it should be recognised that the number of deaths has been low:

Date Number of Deaths
19-Aug 2
18-Aug 1
17-Aug 0
16-Aug 0
15-Aug 0
14-Aug 0
13-Aug 0
12-Aug 1
11-Aug 1
10-Aug 0
09-Aug 0
08-Aug 1
07-Aug 4
06-Aug 5
05-Aug 0
04-Aug 0
03-Aug 0
02-Aug 0
01-Aug 0

One commentator in The Irish Times however stated that “the public gets increasingly restive – some resentful of those flouting the lockdown; others fed up of it and wondering why Ireland’s lockdown is one of the most stringent in Europe despite relative success in containing the virus over the summer.”

In truth, the Irish State is in danger of repeating the same mistakes as before, despite its self-congratulation at being better than the British, which is currently no longer the case according to its own quoted metric.

It hadn’t occurred to this newspaper commentator that it was the virus that had contained the population, and it was this that was one of the most stringent in Europe; or that this is why opening up has inevitably resulted, as it has all over the world, in the renewed spread of the virus.

It has happened now, before winter, when it was stated that we faced a potential second wave when the weather turned for the worse.  Yet despite this earlier warning we are now informed that the Government is working on a new strategy when surely the existing one for the second wave is already waiting to be taken off the shelf?

The inevitable spread explains what many see as the anomaly between previous success and the forecast increased transmission, and highlights the many contradictions in the Government’s policy pointed out immediately after the introduction of the new measures.

What strikes one first in looking at them is their meagreness, the main impact of which seems to be to delay the easing that was planned.  The new measures include:

  • All visits to home limited to six people from outside the home and from no more than three households, with outdoor gatherings limited to fifteen people
  • The closing time for restaurants, cafes and pubs (serving food) to be extended by half an hour
  • Sports events to be held behind closed doors
  • Public transport to be avoided and in private transport mask wearing is advised where there are mixed households and
  • The over-70s are asked to exercise individual judgment in their social interaction (which it must really be assumed they have been doing already)

It has been pointed out that while the over-70s are advised to stay at home Masses and other religious services are to continue as before.  While still told that they are allowed to holiday in the State by the Taoiseach, the Acting Chief Medical Officer warns that “at the moment we wouldn’t be recommending that someone would go to a hotel.”

Weddings are still allowed attendance by 50 people, despite public health advice that it be limited to six, while gatherings at home are limited to six.  Even a ‘Government source’ described this as “incoherent.”

The move to close sporting events has been described by a professor of experimental immunology from TCD as “bizarre” given that (some) pubs are open, so that you can watch games on TV in the pub but not outside from the sidelines, adding that public transport was not an area of great transmission. While accepting that there must be some rise in cases he hoped that the new measures represented a more “finessed and tailored” approach than the previous lockdown, which might be like the proverbial lipstick on a pig.  It has been noted that there are no specific measures for meat plants, which have been significant sites of transmission.

The public health advice is clearly stronger than the measures introduced and is warning that a full lockdown may have to be reintroduced, something already rejected in private by the Government.  It is clear that a full lockdown will not work, as has already been proved, and will cause much more significant long term problems than it solves as I have argued in a number of previous posts on the virus.

Unfortunately, while the politicians reject a complete lockdown they also warn that development of the current situation threatens those most at risk – the old and vulnerable – yet there is no focus or strategy on this group, except advice that your actions are at your own risk.  Having tried a complete lockdown the Government has failed put together a more limited strategy to protect those most at risk, calling into question, for anyone who cares to think about it, the previous lockdown and all its costs.  The more it tailors and finesses the less sense it appears to make.

While many people are angry at the measures in place either because they are fed up with them and don’t see the risk to them or the death toll as justification, others are blaming this group for the growth of infections.  Like the strategy of the Tory Government in Britain, including Scotland and also the North of Ireland, the Government’s responsible for the failure to protect those known to be at risk are setting themselves up to blame those they rule.  If people are angry now they should be made aware that the bill is in the post and will not be limited to billions of Euros, but will include the effects of ill health brought on by economic deprivation.

As an alternative it is possible to demand a coherent strategy that focuses on protecting the vulnerable and that avoids the inconsistencies of the existing strategy, which claims justification from public health advice that it cannot and will not implement.

Similar comments could be made in relation to the measures introduced in the North and the promise of more stricter measures that have just been flagged.

Confusion now does not bode well for the future need for a well-grounded resistance to the austerity that is coming, or the blame that will inevitably be seeking a target.  In this respect we should remember the claim after the financial crash that ‘we all got carried away’ as the explanation for the failure of the Celtic Tiger.  Given the buy-in by so many to the Government’s approach blaming it will not be as simple as blaming the bankers, not that that did any good anyway.

4 thoughts on “The Covid-19 strategy in Ireland starts to unravel

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Dominic Cummings moment | Sráid Marx

  2. It has been blunder after blunder. A good deal of it due to Governments listening to contested scientific advice. The biggest blunder is just getting under way, the sending of children back to school. The urban myth is that children don’t get infected with the corona virus and when they do they don’t get sick. Funny, that I have just read a study published by the CDC that reports that younger children who are not symptomatic when checked carry a viral load one hundred times more than adults who have been hospitalised. No expert can say for sure why younger children don’t get sick, some think they have fewer cells with the spike protein, others think it is down to the innate immune system, other experts thing it is due to the fact that children have fewer co-morbidity. There is no certainty on the matter.

    What is clear is that children do get infected with the virus and will spread it fast to others, including, teachers, dinner ladies, bus drivers, passengers on the buses, shop workers etc. We clapped for carers now let us prey for the teachers! Sorry I can’t light a candle in my chapel for them all as it is is closed until the good old days return. I do feel especially sorry for the bus drivers, they have taken a hammering during the pandemic. All this inconvenience just when I just qualified for my free travel pass. Thinking of myself as usual.

    • “The urban myth is that children don’t get infected with the corona virus and when they do they don’t get sick.”

      Except its not an urban myth its a pretty indisputable fact as all the data shows. The data also shows that young people are less likely to pass the virus on. Teachers and so on are less likely to be infected by school students than they are by other adults, but the facts also show that the large majority of adults are, in any case, not at serious risk from COVID.

      If there are any workers be they teachers, dinner ladies, or bus drivers who are in the 20% of the population actually at serious risk, i.e. those over 60 or with other underlying medical conditions that affect immune response, then they should have been put on indefinite sick leave with full pay, as the effective means of isolating them from contact with the virus. Closing down schools let alone the rest of the economy is utterly insane.

  3. An increase in infections was always going to happen in countries that imposed lockdowns or stringent test and trace, as soon as they relaxed those measures, because all they do is to slow the spread whilst in place, without doing anything to protect populations without the development of vaccines or other effective treatments. Indeed, by slowing the spread amongst the 80% of the population not at serious risk from the virus, i.e. all those under 60 who have no other underlying medical conditions, they prevent the development of herd immunity, which is the only effective means of stopping the further spread of the virus, and ensuring it dies out.

    What is interesting in the data not just for Ireland, but for everywhere that imposed lockdowns or stringent test and trace is that although infection rates are increasing again, as you have set out above for Ireland, mortality rates are not rising proportionally. Some months ago, I said that would be the case. The reason for it is simple. The high number of deaths at the start of the pandemic was almost exclusively of elderly people. Those over 80 comprised more than 50% of all deaths, those over 60, around 92% of all deaths. The high mortality rate was really just a high mortality rate of these elderly people, primarily in care homes and hospitals where they were concentrated, and where a lack of PPE and appropriate measures for isolation meant that the virus was able to spread and kill with impunity.

    Deaths in those places have slowed down, partly because many of those who were going to die – in previous years many of them would have died of flu, but last year was a year when there were fewer flu deaths than normal – had already died from the virus, and partly because, eventually, measures to provide PPE, and introduce isolation were introduced, and partly because even amongst this age group, it is only a minority who would die from the virus anyway . So, as infections now rise again amongst the general population, i.e. amongst the 80% who were never at serious risk from the virus, there is not a big rise in deaths, because there never was going to be a big rise in deaths amongst the group. If we look back a few months to when there were the big BLM demonstrations we were told there would be a big rise in deaths. The same was said when a few months ago thousands of young people congregated on the beach at Bournemouth. There wasn’t, because there never was any serious risk to this group of people under 60, and particularly under 40. The lockdown of the social activity of this cohort of the population was always pointless and counterproductive.

    If we look across Europe as lockdowns and strict test and trace regimes are relaxed there is an inevitable rise in infection rates – itself also more visible because of more extensive testing – but no proportional rise in deaths. As I said that is inevitable, because there never was going to be large scale deaths amongst that 80% of the population. There are some increased deaths because some of the elderly and sick are still vulnerable, but the ratio of deaths to infections must now inevitably fall. We will find ultimately that the mortality rate as against infections will be lower than for flu. Total flu deaths are generally lower, for the simple reason that a large proportion of the population vulnerable to it, are vaccinated, and others have acquired immunity built up over years, so that total flu deaths are lower due to a lower number of actual infections.

    Again if we look at Sweden, it did not lock down or introduce strict test and trace. Early on, it suffered deaths in its care homes and hospitals because it too failed to properly isolate those locations. The reason it has a higher number of total deaths than its neighbours besides the fact its population is double theirs, and is concentrated in larger conurbations, is that it has much larger care homes and hospitals, where these vulnerable populations are concentrated. But Sweden has essentially eliminated new deaths from COVID in the last few months. It is not going to have any increase in infections or deaths, unlike its neighbours and others in Europe. Data purporting to show the extent of immunity in Sweden puts it as no greater than elsewhere, but although they introduced measures of social distancing, which its people appear to have mainly adhered to, its unlikely that there was not a greater level of infection. The fact that the number of infections and deaths fell so much, suggests that there is, in fact, already a high level of immunity in Sweden, and that there is something wrong with the testing for it.

    The mad rush into introducing lockdowns was rather like the belief in 2003 that Saddam had WMD that were going to be unleashed and create mass deaths within 45 minutes. The information that led to this conclusion was confirmed by numerous intelligence agencies who it turned out were simply recirculating the information of each other, like a game of Chinese whispers. The information nonetheless was false. With COVID 19 the same happened with lazy journalists keen for sensational stories, and competing against each other for who could be the most sensational, whipped up a moral panic that politicians and their advisors could not resist, forcing them in to ill-thought out and unnecessary measures simply in order to be seen to be doing something. But what they did in introducing lockdowns was inneffective, counterproductive and damaging.

    The economic slowdown, which is the worst in 300 years is not a consequence of COVID19, though those same forces continue to frame it as such. The economic slowdown is solely the result of government decisions to forcibly shut down the economy. All of the death, ill-health and misery that will continue for years as a result of that economic slowdown is solely the responsibility of governments that imposed it, and of those that urged them on to implement it.

    Finally, as lockdowns are eased and as infection rats rise, although the 80% of the population not at risk will be fine, as they always would have been, the risks remain for the 20%, other than those that have already died amongst it. Four or five months ago, it would have been relatively easy to have isolated that 20%, in an age of online shopping and home deliveries. Persuading people at risk in that group to self isolate for a month or two, whilst herd immunity amongst the rest of the population developed and the virus died out could have been achieved. But, now after all these months of lockdown people have indeed become weary and worn down, governments are even withdrawing some of the minimal support they provided to enable the 20% to self isolate. So, implementing that strategy, which was the only rational one from the beginning will, as I said at the time, now also be harder to achieve.

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