INMO and Donnelly declare: It might be time to bring back facemasks

In some ways the most remarkable thing about this story is the relative lack of coverage it’s received. If you want definitive proof of how the Irish media runs with the hare and hunts with the hound, imagine how much coverage the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation would have received just a year ago for a big announcement about facemasks, and covid. Wall-to-wall, with Ministers asked to respond, and various medics on the radio praising them, is the answer.

And yet here are the nurses out saying that Covid is getting so bad in the hospitals that we need mandatory masks back, and outside this Virgin Media segment, I can’t find much coverage of it at all. Not RTE, not the Irish Times. The Sunday Indo did splash on it yesterday, with Stephen Donnelly saying “maybe” to the IMNO’s query, but even that was sort of a half-hearted “maybe”, if you read the story, which the SIndo did their best to sex up to get clicks from outraged anti-lockdowners. There was no committment from him to anything other than “listening to the advice”:

“Is it possible that I could get a recommendation for public transport or for retail [that], yes, we do recommend now that we move to mandatory mask-wearing for a short period of time? You couldn’t rule that out,” Mr Donnelly told the Sunday Independent this weekend. “It’s not where we’re at, but you can never say never.”

“Never say never” is hardly a sign of an immenent effort to turn us all back into Darth Vader, to be fair. It smacks of trying to keep the hardcore coviders happy, while playing down the prospects in reality. Here’s the IMNO:

Anyway, to the substance: It’s true that there has been a rise in the number of patients in hospital with covid recently, and that prevalence of the illness does seem to be on the increase. But as ever, there’s a big difference in “the number of people in hospital because they have covid” and “the number of people in hospital who happen to have covid”, as people who read our pandemic coverage will be aware.

It’s also true that if the booster jabs followed the pattern of the first two doses of the covid 19 vaccines, then immunity (perhaps “protection”, is a better word, given they don’t grant immunity) should largely be waning by now. The booster programme, remember, was largely rolled out in November and December of 2021, which feels like years ago, but was, in reality, just six or seven months ago. If the fall-off in protection mirrors doses one or two, then there are a lot of people out there like me who took three jabs who don’t have vastly more immunity to the disease than the people who didn’t take any jabs at all. Notably, there’s no real talk of a massive campaign to get people to take a fourth jab, which tells you a lot about how official Ireland quietly regards the efficacy of the vaccine.

Notably, though, as well as the vaccine programme, Ireland has also had 1.58million cases of covid in total – and that’s only recorded cases. With the move away from PCR testing to mass testing at home that occurred in the spring, it’s a certainty that the officially recorded cases are a big undercount. It’s likely that well over half the population – jabbed and unjabbed – has had covid at this point, meaning that there’s a big well of natural resistance to the virus in the population.

All of which combines to make the INMO’s demand for mandatory masking look a little bit silly. As we’ve covered multiple times on this platform, there is no evidence at all that can be found anywhere that mandatory masking meaningfully impacted the number of covid cases. Indeed, when masks were finally made optional this spring, at a time with a high level of covid circulating in the population, the impact on case numbers was…. Nothing at all. If masks had been holding back a tide of disease, we’d have had our definitive proof that this was the case then. But if any lesson was to be drawn from that experience, it’s the contrary one.

Anyway, two things strike me about this: The lack of media coverage reflects first that this ship has sailed, and that there is no establishment appetite for going back to masks or restrictions. Government somehow managed to escape the pandemic with the preponderance of voters thinking they’d done a decent job of it by international standards, and “a decent job of it by international standards” is basically what the Irish voter will settle for. So long as we’re not humiliated by the Brits in terms of covid management, or anything else, the Irish voter will think things went okay. The Government isn’t going to imperil that record and that perception by jumping back into mask wearing and all that stuff unless there’s a big international move in that direction. And there is not one, and will likely not be one.

The second thing that strikes me is that the INMO know this full well. Which leads me to think that this call for masking is the INMO’s media people not understanding the Irish media like they thought they did: The probably assumed, based on the last couple of years, that “calling for masks” was a surefire way to get their concerns about the health system onto the front pages of the newspapers and to the top of the broadcast coverage. It would, after all, have worked for them in 2020 or 2021. But, alas, they don’t understand our media at all. Covid is so last year, you guys.

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