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Opinion: It is time for mass disobedience on lockdown

Sports journalist Ewan McKenna, responding to the latest Government leaks to the newspapers yesterday, which suggested that the July 5th date for indoor hospitality would be extended further, got pretty close to the truth of the matter with this tweet:

The precise excuses used, of course, may change, but the bottom line is this: The Government, at least the version of the Government lead by Micheál Martin, is terrified of getting the blame for a surge in covid cases and hospitalisations. Because it is so terrified of getting that blame, the calculation is that the public will not blame it for exercising caution. TDs and Senators can go on the television and say things like “keeping people safe is our highest priority”, safe in the knowledge that most of the media will nod along, and a lot of the population, financially unaffected, will assume that they are engaged in a noble effort to save lives.

Like much of what happens in Ireland, the debate is turned into a cartoon version of reality. Those who favour longer lockdowns are responsible and cautious. Those of us who favour a faster re-opening are reckless, and in some cases actively, it is alleged, risking people’s lives.

The problem with this framing is that once you apply it, it becomes almost impossible to escape from it. Any act of re-opening, at any time, will of course increase the risk of coronavirus and other infectious illnesses spreading. It does not really matter whether that is tomorrow, in three weeks, or in six months, or (heaven help us) in several years. Whenever you get “back to normal”, cases of covid will probably increase. Cases of other illnesses, like the cold and the flu, will also increase.

Which begs the question: If Government is not prepared to open up now, with 13 or 14 people nationwide in ICU with Covid, when will it be so prepared? What number does it want to see? Cases, after all, have been stable for several months in the 300-500 a day range. None of the moves to open, limited though they have been, to date, have caused those numbers to spike. Indeed, we have had several weeks of people actively flouting the restrictions in Dublin, and other large towns, and provoking the ire of Lord Holohan in the process. But cases have remained flat.

The dreaded Delta variant, by the way, has not yet struck here in large numbers. To the extent that it has struck in the UK, death numbers, so far, anyway, have remained unaffected. In fact, while Ireland persists with restrictions due to “concerns about Delta in the UK”, the UK is proceeding with a re-opening plan much more advanced than the Irish one. Is the British Government, and its scientific advisors, unaware of the concerns about the Delta variant? Or is the Irish Government simply trapped in a cycle of paranoia from which there is no escape?

The problem is that if “we can only re-open when we can be sure cases will not spike” is the standard, then it is a standard that will not, and can not, ever be met. As Ewan notes in his tweet, we are not far away from schools re-opening, which will pose a risk. Then the colder weather of winter. Then, inevitably, “remember what happened last Christmas?”.

The standard, therefore, has to change if Ireland is to extricate itself from this mess. The fear of covid itself, which is vastly out of proportion to the risk covid poses to the average person, must be reduced. It is, after all, a bad dose. But with most of the at risk population (including yours truly) vaccinated, it is no longer, for most people, a potentially lethal dose. The idea that we cannot risk a rise in cases is misplaced. We absolutely *have* to risk a rise in cases, if for no other reason than to find out how successful the vaccination campaign has been. If we cannot do that, then the vaccination campaign itself was completely without purpose: After all, what was the point in spending all that money – hundreds of millions – vaccinating people if the country must remain shuttered?

But we have, sadly, long since gone past the time when the country was governed by logic. Part of the problem is that politicians are so poorly trusted, and doctors so highly trusted, that politicians fear that they dare not cross the doctors. Another problem is that in financial terms, Covid has been a bonanza for the media, particularly RTE. A third problem is that for a big chunk of the population (again, including yours truly) lockdown has been just fine. But we are not musicians, or publicans, or young people looking for a date.

We are at the stage now where only mass non-compliance will force the Government’s hand. Restauranteur Paul Treyvaud, down in Killarney, has signalled a willingness to be the first to go over the top. We can only hope that others follow. If the Government will not lead, then the public must.

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