With just over two weeks to go until Christmas, and covid cases rising, some in the media are clamouring for another lockdown.
As commentator Eoin O’Malley said last week, the “broadcast media especially is determined to make the most of it, and while Covid’s body count is insufficiently scary to bother reporting any more, we get case numbers instead, reported each night as if they mean anything.”
Vaccine effectiveness is not what the government had hoped, it increasingly seems like Ireland is without a Covid plan, stumbling from one set of restrictions and lockdown to the next, without measuring the real cost of these ongoing restrictions.
Lockdowns, as the WHO has said repeatedly in this crisis, should only be considered in “extreme circumstances”, yet Ireland has locked down longer and harder than most European countries. (On that, it’s funny, isn’t it, that the WHO is considered God Almighty when it suits the government narrative, but conveniently ignored when it doesn’t?).
Are we currently in “extreme circumstances” warranting full restrictions? The facts don’t seem to bear this out. Early reports show that the Omicron variant seems to be less severe, yet the headlines concentrate on how infectious it is.
Here’s 4 things we should consider before enforcing another Covid lockdown.
- Covid cases are rising but hospitalisations and deaths remain relatively low
What are the numbers behind the doom-announcing headlines? While it’s true that Covid cases have risien sharply, deaths and hospitalisations are not following the same pattern.
These graphs show that the case numbers climbed almost to the peak that we saw last January but, to date, deaths remain low and hospitalisations are not as severe as with the last peak of cases.
This is likely due to the effect of vaccines (which seem to be preventing severe illness) and increasing numbers of people with natural immunity – who are immune because they have recovered from Covid.
Of course, Covid-19 can be deadly, and the virus has killed 5,707 people in Ireland so far. But the pattern of this current wave suggests that the most severe consequences – death and severe illnesses – are not reaching the same levels as they previously did.
Experts caution that might change. And that brings us to an alternative to another lockdown.
- Antigen tests are a real alternative to damaging lockdowns
The government is strangely reluctant to make effective use of antigen testing, but some experts believe that the tests are key to dealing with the Covid crisis.
Epidemiologist and immunologist Michael Mina has long championed the use of the cheap, DIY tests that would give a positive or negative result for the coronavirus in about 15 minutes. He argues that if antigen tests were widely and frequently used, they could cut Covid outbreaks back before they spread. His modeling shows that twice-weekly rapid testing can stop significant viral spread, even if the tests aren’t always as accurate as the PCR equivalent.
With vaccine efficacy waning, and infectious variants still emerging, even previous critics of antigen testing now seem to have come around to their usefulness – especially as an alternative to lockdown.
Earlier this year, Nphet official Prof Philip Nolan described the use of antigen testing as “snake oil”, but now Prof Luke O’Neill says “no, it’s not snake oil, I mean the technology is fantastic”.
“The false positive rate is very low, right, so if you’re positive stay home,” he advised.
The inexpensive test involves taking a sample from the nose with a swab and is most useful in identifying those who are infectious and most likely to pass on Covid-19.
What’s inexplicable is that the government seems to be so slow in taking up antigen testing as a real alternative to damaging lockdowns – unlike the UK, where antigen tests are free, most Covid restrictions are lifted, there are no Covid passes, and the country does not look in danger of locking down again.
- The damage caused by lockdowns must be faced
There are real and devastating costs to lockdowns which have real and devastating effects on people’s lives. Yet the Irish government is largely keeping us ignorant on the actual cost of locking down the people and the economy.
We know the cost of borrowing to finance the shut down – more than €40 billion, which has to be repaid because there is no magic money tree. We’re looking at the kind of spend that crashed the economy after the banking crisis, and we know that brought untold hardship for so many people with recession, tax hikes, and cuts to spending.
The effect of stringent restrictions on access to medical care is enormous. Professor Seamus O’Reilly, a consultant medical oncologist in Cork University Hospital, has warned that we will see higher death rates from cancer for the next decade because of the disruption to cancer screening and treatment over the past year. Cancer treatment trials were down 40%, mammograms were cancelled for 6 months, and just 1 out of every 5 cervical checks were attended.
Demand for mental health supports and suicide prevention services have soared across Ireland during the 13-month Covid-19 pandemic, according to Ireland’s first Professor of Public Mental Health, Prof Ella Arensman.
In the US, the New York Times recently reported that a radical increase in fatal drug overdoses was driven by an increased use of fentanyl and “the initial pandemic lockdowns and subsequent fraying of social networks, along with the rise in mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.”
Then there’s the harm caused by an increase in domestic violence, in educational difficulties for children especially those already disadvantaged, and much more.
Yet these effects have not been subject to rigorous analysis by the Irish state.
Peadar Tóibín TD has pointed out that the State has not undertaken any meaningful cost benefit analysis on the effects of lockdown. The obvious benefit is to prevent Covid-19 deaths, but at what cost? Covid is not the only disease that can kill people and we are in danger of ignoring the catastrophe that is coming in terms of missed diagnosis.
Tóibín also pointed to the fact that Ireland locked down harder, without necessarily seeing benefits that might be expected from that decision
“No other country took the route that we took and it cost no other country the same in financial terms.”
“Countries like Denmark and Germany opened pubs and restaurants, for example, months before we did. They did it safely, with antigen testing, using proper logic to open those services, and they allowed people to go back to work earlier, and it cost their countries radically less as a result,” he said.
This government defaults to more restrictions and more lockdowns without a full assessment of the potential catastrophic damage. Given what we now know about Covid-19, is there a better way of dealing with the virus at this stage of the crisis?
- We need to learn to live with the virus
Former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, said yesterday that if the UK was to learn to live with Covid-19, it needed to avoid stopping and starting the economy. It seems that the UK – and countries like Sweden which avoided a full lockdown – now have stronger natural immunity (immunity after recovery) against the disease and that this is impacting on its ability to stay open despite new variants.
Antigen testing would be part of how we learn to live with Covid, because we simply can’t stay locked down forever and it’s almost impossible to really suppress a virus.
Has Ireland learned to live with Covid? Not only have we locked down longer and harder than most, we’ve done nothing meaningful about the provision of Intensive Care beds – a measure of how well we are going to be able to deal with any pandemic.
Our general hospital beds have reduced from 22,658 in 2001 to 14,213 in 2021 – at a time when our population grew by 25%. Incredibly, despite reports and recommendations in the past 12 years the number of ICU beds has actually fallen from 289 to 280.
This is mind-boggling, but instead of hard questions, the government and opposition get soft interviews from the media about what’s going wrong.
If the definition of madness is to keep at the same strategy while expecting different results, then we’re on a hiding to nothing. It’s past time to start thinking differently on Covid lockdowns.