Credit: D Storan /

Donnelly’s new idea: What about a bit of…. Mandatory facemasking?

Prediction: This won’t happen. But still, ol’ Conehead here has to run the flag up the pole, to show that Government is taking the threat seriously, and so on:

Mask wearing on public transport and in health settings might be mandatory again if there is a Covid wave this winter, the Cabinet has heard.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly brought a memo to Government outlining what steps will be taken if there is a major increase in Covid cases.

It notes that, if required, the introduction of mask mandates in certain settings like transport and healthcare will involve what is described as “a point-in-time assessment of indicators”.

It adds that this will involve “due consideration of the personal, ethical, and public health perspectives”.

There are, really, two Irelands at the moment: There is post pandemic Ireland, where many of us live, and then, quietly, but very determinedly, there is an Ireland where the pandemic is still ever-present. Go to a mass, some Sunday, in rural Ireland, and count how many older people in the pews are still in masks. In many churches, the “sign of peace” has yet to return, for fear of spreading the plague. Someone known to me who makes their living as a Bingo caller reports that attendance at the Bingo has never recovered to its pre-pandemic levels. There are still people, many of them now quadruple vaccinated, terrified to go back to living life as it was before “the virus”.

There is another group, too: Probably less numerous, but still very real. I’d call them the lockdown nostalgics. These are the people for whom lockdown was, if not a blessed time, then a time of quiet fulfillment. If you’re the kind of person who likes the ideal of a communitarian society, with everyone pulling towards the same goal, and a sense of national unity of purpose against a common enemy, then you’d have enjoyed lockdown. Just as you’d have enjoyed the spirit of the blitz in world war two, or the fervour of the spanish inquisition. Some people are just wired to enjoy being part of something bigger than themselves, and “doing their bit”. People always like to think they’d have been the fellow in this photo, but there’s a reason there are so few photos like it.

Chances are you’d have saluted. It was the done thing, after all.

Add a third group: The media. A good pandemic scare means a bounty in HSE-sponsored covid advertising. There’s a reason why “stay safe, stay at home” and so on, are burned into our brains, and that reason is that vast amounts of your money was expended repeating the message across the media. Add the panic-clicks and the lockdown porn to the advertising, and there’s profit to be made in a good covid scare. Throw all three groups together, and there’s a big constituency – 40% of the public or more, who would welcome a return to mandatory masking, and perhaps a bit more.

But for all that, mandatory masking is very unlikely, I suspect: The Government needs to signal to that 40% that it is taking the threat seriously, so the odd rumble about restrictions being on the table is mood music for those ears. Meanwhile, the Government has another, competing, imperative: To maintain the fiction that whatever else its flaws might be, it steered the country uniquely well through the pandemic and emerged the other side with record growth and recovery, at least compared to the feckless English. Sending the country back to mandatory mask hell, while no such measures exist in Northern Ireland, would trigger a wave of public ill-will from the people not predisposed to lockdowns, at a time when this Government can ill-afford another cause for public ill-will.

There’s also the matter of opposition: During the pandemic, normal politics was, very unwisely, suspended. The opposition disarmed themselves, basically unilaterally, on the question of whether various measures were wise or necessary. That is unlikely to be the case this time: Some enterprising opposition party will cite the return of masks not as evidence of a surge in covid, but as evidence of the public paying the price for a fundamentally broken health system. Not bringing in masks, by contrast, will be the Government’s own vote of confidence in itself: We survived the winter, tough as it was, without having to bring in any restrictions, because we managed it so well.

But to pull off the three card trick, you first need some cards on the table. That’s what, I think, Donnelly was doing yesterday – pulling a card from the deck, so that you can marvel, later on, at how he made it disappear.

And in the meantime, my colleagues across journalism will certainly hope, a new wave of “be careful” advertising might do the trick instead. Ker-ching!


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