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McConkey: Re-opening should continue despite Delta

“Zero Covid” Professor Sam McConkey has said that the re-opening of the economy should not be slowed or hindered by the Delta variant, adding that a societal discussion is needed about “acceptable risk.”

Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1’s Today with Claire Byrne today, Professor McConkey said that the re-opening of indoor dining should not be delayed by fears over variants.

“I think we should go ahead with a cautious reopening on the 5th of July,” McConkey said.

“And really, what I’d like to see is a rather challenging public discussion about what is ‘acceptable risk’. Because if we’re choosing to live with covid – and as you know I advocated very strongly for zero covid, but that wasn’t accepted. But if we’re going to live with covid, at some stage we have to recognise that we have to get culture and hospitality and all these really important things to get us back up and running.

“So it’s a question of how much risk are we willing to accept? I obviously don’t have the resources of the NPHET modelling group behind me. But I have tried to look at, over the next 6 months, if we were to do a cautious re-opening largely according to the government plan, what would happen? And I think there’d be somewhere around 200,000 and 400,000 cases of the Delta variant in Ireland over the rest of this year.

“We see from England there’s about a 1 in 1000 mortality rate. So you’re looking at something like between 200 and 400 deaths from covid because of that public choice.”

McConkey went on to explain that society does risk assessments all the time in non-covid related issues.

“It’s a very difficult thing to talk about,” he said.

“To me it’s a matter of benchmarking it against other acceptable risks that we already take. So in Ireland our transport policy at present does cause between 200 and 400 deaths a year on the roads. I’m a cyclist, and there are all sorts of buses and cars driving in the cycle lane, as you know. And it feels unsafe at times, and it certainly can be unsafe.
“That’s an example of a policy in Ireland that’s leading to an acceptable risk that most people choose of 200 or 300 deaths a year. So can we not do the same with covid?”

Claire Byrne put it to the professor that it was reckless to not delay for as much as a month until more people were vaccinated. McConkey said it was not any more reckless than not immediately implementing more rigorous road safety measures he mentioned.

“At some point you have to bite the bullet and say ‘This is a risky world, there’s always some risk.’ People have to ask what level of risk are they willing to accept? If people aren’t willing to accept any risk, then you really have to go for the Zero Covid option. And I accept that that’s difficult because we have a land border with Northern Ireland.”

McConkey added that hospitalisations and ICU admissions in the UK remain incredibly low.

“Hospitalisations in the UK are very low,” he said.

“Just 1% of those with the Delta variant are being hospitalised with it, and just 1 in 1000 are dying from it. That’s more than tenfold better than what we had back in January and February.”

He also pointed out that Ireland has a younger population, and that we used more of the Pfizer vaccine, which he said is more effective against the Delta variant than the UK’s preferred AstraZeneca jab, giving us a distinct advantage in the event of a further wave.

Notably, Professor McConkey famously claimed that 80,000 to 120,000 people could potentially die from covid-19 at the start of the pandemic – a claim we now know was wildly inaccurate, and which then-Health Minister Simon Harris said he took seriously at the time.

This claim may have contributed to the government’s initial decision to lockdown in March of 2020.

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