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Cancelling the Ireland/Italy game is a pointless political stunt

Between 5pm and midnight this evening, while you were enjoying your pancakes, two flights arrived at Dublin Airport from Milan, Italy. A third arrived from the southern Italian city of Bari. A commercial flight usually carries between 150-200 passengers. In other words, about 450 people arrived into Ireland from a country where thousands of people are quarantined with suspected Coronavirus in one six-hour period alone.

Countless more flights landed from Germany, where 17 cases have been confirmed. Several arrived from the middle east where there are hundreds of cases, and we do not know how many of the ten or so flights from London were carrying passengers who originated in China, or literally anywhere else.

None of these passengers were screened. It would be entirely impractical to screen them.

Earlier this evening, the Minister for Health announced that he would be cancelling, or calling for the cancellation of, Ireland’s forthcoming Rugby Match with Italy.

In politics, when there is a crisis, it is important to be seen to be doing something. Usually, the more dramatic that “something” is, the better. The most dramatic thing, of course, would be to close the borders. But that would create economic chaos, and, presumably, strand thousands of Irish people abroad.

In the context of fighting a growing Coronavirus epidemic, the impact of cancelling one sporting event is absolutely miniscule. Yes, 45,000 people are scheduled to be in one place, on one afternoon – but they’ll be in the open air, on what’s probably going to be a windy March day. The chances of one coughing Italian infecting the nation with Coronavirus while Jonny Sexton tries to kick a conversion is miniscule. If the infection is going to arrive, it’s much more likely that one coughing Italian will infect 60 Irish people on a plane from Bari, or Milan, and that they in turn will infect their families, who will infect their schools, and so on.

The Government’s decision has, at face value, absolutely no obvious benefit to public health. The benefits of the decision are entirely political. Simon Harris could probably have saved himself face with the IRFU, and Rugby fans across the nation, by getting the words “we are taking this seriously” tattooed across his forehead. It’s an absurdity.

But absurdity is the point. The Government has, thus far, made very little preparation for a likely outbreak of the virus here. A major, dramatic, intervention like this is exactly what’s needed to make it seem like there is a coherent plan to respond to the threat, when it is patently obvious to anybody paying attention that no practical plan exists.

Given the now rapid spread of the disease, it is highly likely that coronavirus, in some shape or form, is already on our shores, or that it will be within a matter of days. Already there are students in schools in Waterford and elsewhere being kept under observation, having exhibited symptoms upon their return from Italy.

The virus has a relatively low mortality rate. Only about 3% of those who get it will die – and many of those will be the old and the already sick. For most of us, if we encounter the disease, it will be in the form of a particularly nasty flu.

But the old and the sick, of course, won’t be attending a Rugby match on a cold march day in Ballsbridge. They’ll be in the hospitals where the first patients are taken. When this virus claims Irish lives, it will almost certainly be because someone who doesn’t know they have it spends six or sixteen hours in accident and emergency coughing all over a grandmother who’s hurt her wrist.

In truth, the opportunity to contain this virus is rapidly evaporating. The Government’s focus should now be on effective response mechanisms to a likely outbreak, rather than the pipe-dream of preventing one.

The public should be being told the following:

  • What are the symptoms?
  • What to do if you suspect you have symptoms? (Hint, don’t go to A&E and cough over everybody)
  • Who is most at risk?
  • How long do you remain contagious?
  • What precautions are most effective at reducing the spread of infection?
  • What equipment should households have? Handwash? Facemasks?

The objective of any Government strategy should also be to keep the public calm, if the infection is inevitable. The last thing the country needs is a panic, and cancelling major events is likely to send the opposite message entirely. If a game of Rugby is dangerous, then why is mass, or school, or a trip to the shopping centre not dangerous? Is it merely the presence of Italians?

Simon Harris’s entire record in Healthcare has been defined by stunts. He is a master of rolling up his shirt sleeves and looking like he has just engaged in decisive action, while furrowing up his brow in concern at the injustices being inflicted on the public. But his record of actually managing the health system through crisis after crisis reveals the truth of his abilities.

Cancelling a six nations match is a classic Harris stunt. It will have virtually no impact on the likelihood of a viral outbreak, and it has one purpose and one alone: To give the appearance of action and decisiveness where none exists.

The IRFU should tell him to get stuffed. They won’t, of course, but they should.

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