A week is a long time in politics, but a relatively short time in terms of Covid cases. In 2021, when Florida and Texas, alone amongst US states, did away with all covid restrictions and announced a “return to normalcy”, cases fell, and continued to fall, for months, confounding people who wanted a lockdown at all costs. Ultimately, however, when a surge did come, both states were hit relatively badly. It is worth, then, being cautious at all times. Those of us who cheer falling cases always risk being made to look like fools in a few weeks, which is why making definitive predictions is silly.
But that Florida and Texas situation was, of course, in the days before Omicron. Omicron is a different ailment altogether – one which the European Center for Disease Control reckons to be not much more lethal than the common flu. And, in the week since Ireland threw off (most of) the shackles, nothing whatever has happened to make that decision look foolish. Here is the graph of the last two weeks:
Cases have continued to fall, and level out. In fact, looking at the graph, it is hard to detect any impact from restrictions at all – though this has been the case for some time.
Pubs, restaurants, and nightclubs will have been operating in Ireland at full capacity for seven days and nights, as of this evening. Given what came before – when they were compelled to close at 8pm, and deny entry to unvaccinated people – it stands to reason that Ireland has seen in the past week an enormous surge in social mixing and mingling. We have eliminated not only restrictions on the population at large, but also on unvaccinated individuals – those presented, constantly, for months, as a threat to public safety. And yet, to date, there has been no impact at all.
It is worth remembering here that it is not necessarily bad news if cases do begin to rise: Covid is a mild illness for 99% of people these days, and acquired natural immunity has a stronger immune effect than a vaccine booster does, according to almost every study. The ideal outcome, most likely, is not for the curve to fall away to nothing, but for it to remain relatively flat. There will be those, in the coming weeks, eagerly seeking any rise in cases in order to use it to make the case that the Government and NPHET got this call wrong – but such an argument relies on the mistaken underlying faith that case rises are always bad, and always dangerous. They are not.
There is even better news on the hospitalisation front: The numbers in intensive care are down to 74, from over 200 just a few weeks ago. The numbers in hospital – either with, or because of covid – are down to 739, from well over a thousand a few weeks ago. Every arrow continues to point in the right direction.
The provisional conclusion which may be drawn from all of this is that the re-opening was the correct decision, for three reasons:
First, because even when there is a case for restrictions, that case should be underpinned by the most robust possible science. There simply is no science, anywhere on the planet, as of today, which indicates that Ireland’s present covid situation is threatening. If you doubled every covid indicator – cases, hospitalisations, and ICU admissions – the health system would still be able to cope.
Second, because the more harmless cases we have, the better prepared we are for any new, and more dangerous wave, in the unknown eventuality that one arrives. Each infection that does not result in a hospitalisation, or severe illness, has roughly the same net effect – if not a better one – than an additional vaccination.
Third, because the no restrictions state should be the default state of affairs. There are those who would keep restrictions in place because of something which might happen – but that amounts to restricting people’s rights for a “might”, and not a “will”. Ireland is a perfectly safe country, at the moment, and that means thee is no case for restrictions of any kind.
There are, of course, some restrictions which remain in place until a month from today: By February 28th, mask and school restrictions are due to expire. Another week or so of figures like the ones we have today, and there will be a very strong case for ditching them – and the covid pass for international travel – much sooner than that.