The headline most other media outlets seemed to take away from the Taoiseach’s comments yesterday was that lockdown would go on past March 5th. But that’s not really news, is it? Most of us had guessed that already.
No, the far more significant news was in the small print:
Micheál Martin said he did not “see major reopening of the economy on March 5th” – the date that Level 5 curbs are in place until – and that the Government would take a “cautious and conservative approach” to lifting restrictions.
Stating that the hospitality sector’s reopening would be delayed until the inoculation programme was much further progressed, he added, “I’m not looking at the whole of hospitality – there can be different approaches”.
But he said he believed “we will have a critical mass vaccinated by late summer”.
“And I anticipate that as we move into quarter two and quarter three, the issue will become vaccine administration as opposed to a supply issue.”
Put two and two together there, and you should be able to get four: For most hotels, bars, and restaurants, it’s going to be mid to late summer, at the very earliest, before they can open again, if you listen carefully to what Mr. Martin is saying.
One of the big fears amongst policymakers, across the globe, right now, is what happens when the vaccination programme gets going in earnest. I don’t mean how it’s going at the moment, with a sparse few vaccinations being given out to those with golden tickets – health workers and the like – but when it gets ramped up to a situation where thousands are being vaccinated every single day.
The political pressure, in those circumstances, to ease restrictions, will be overwhelming, especially with the “most vulnerable” getting vaccinated first. “If the most vulnerable are vaccinated”, people will say, “then it’s time to let the rest of us get on with it, and get back to work”.
The pressure will not simply be political, but economic, too. As we reported on Friday, Irish debt is soaring. The sooner people go back to work, the sooner the borrowing can ease off a bit.
The problem, though, is that some experts fear that an atmosphere of vaccine jubilation could see the epidemic of all epidemics amongst the young and relatively healthy – and that although fewer of them in percentage terms will end up in hospital or dead, enough of them will to overwhelm the system.
And so, the Government (like many Governments across the west) is going to be caught in a vise grip between two competing factions: Those who desperately want to open the economy at the first sign of real hope, and the medical experts who want caution to be pursued until vaccinations reach something like 70 or 80 per cent of the population.
In that debate, the experts are winning at the moment, it seems. But they’re likely to lose, sometime well before summer. In democracies, Governments that put expert advice before overwhelming public opinion don’t last very long.
In any case, health experts are just that – health experts. When the crisis is over, eventually, they will go away and write their books about how the crisis unfolded. They won’t be around, or be responsible, for, the re-building of the economy. Politicians, if they keep small businesses closed until the summer, will need a whole new set of economic experts to clean up the mess, and political experts, to stave off riots.
For all those reasons, you should probably bet (assuming Paddy Power will let you) on the Government allowing an opening of bars and restaurants much sooner – probably sometime in early May.