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SÉAMUS Ó RIAIN: We can’t go on living in fear

After months of enforced closure, Ireland’s small town/rural pubs are set to re-open next Monday 21st September. Pubs in the capital will remain in limbo – unless of course they are serving a virus-busting plate of chicken and chips for €9.

While the recently announced five level plan “Living With Covid-19” is an improvement on a daily parade of seemingly arbitrary restrictions, red tape and u-turns, the system of governance of this republic is being dragged into serious disrepute by a coalition that is beginning to look as shambolic as the 2008-11 coalition.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin claimed at the briefing in Dublin Castle that: “We must continue to live with the reality that Covid-19 is potentially deadly and causes long term illness”. I would argue that the level of potential deadliness associated with this virus has receded since its peak in late March and it is now high time that politicians – both government and opposition, public health experts and commentators in the media – started to acknowledge this fact and drop the apocalyptic rhetoric.

The people were told we must flatten the curve but the question was never asked as to what follows. We have long since flattened the curve and must now look at ways to protect the elderly and vulnerable, give people back the responsibility for their own health and encourage them to manage the risks inherent in living a socially-connected life. The Government needs to adopt a site-specific, precision reaction to outbreaks instead of blunt-object mass lockdowns as we have seen in Kildare.The resources of the State should be confined to combating confirmed outbreaks, developing rapid airport testing and funding research rather than purchasing advertising on TV, radio and print media about Covid19 which is repetitive, unnecessary and frankly demoralising an entire nation. Likewise the daily briefings from NPHET leading the State broadcaster every evening, pointlessly reeling off testing figures with little or no context. RTE is not leading with stories of businesses closing or the rise in anxiety and depression traceable to lockdown. The fear-mongering has to stop.

More local lockdowns – as warned of in August by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, or a national lockdown as stipulated by Level 5 – will achieve nothing other than structural damage to our society and economy. That the Damocles sword of lockdown might continue hovering over the Irish people until a vaccine is developed, is deeply troubling. There is no clinically proven vaccine for Covid19 now and there might not be for years. Only last week AstraZeneca and Oxford University’s coronavirus vaccine trial was suspended after a participant suffered spinal cord inflammation. While that trial has since resumed in the UK, in America the federal US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has kept it on hold, pending further information.

Apart from small businesses having to close their doors, pubs remaining shuttered and sporadic Garda checkpoints, life for many in Kildare, where I live, under local lockdown resembled the earlier nationwide lockdown – zoom calls from the spare bedroom and a lot of dog-walking. When the bill comes due for all this State-enforced stasis, taxes will go up, spending will be cut and with the emigration safety valve closed off there will be no England, USA or Australia for economically dispossessed young Irish people to go to.

It is logical that the more testing that is done, the more positive results will be recorded. In addition, it has emerged that Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) diagnostic testing may be too sensitive. A report in the New York Times published on 29/8/2020 noted that: “The standard tests are diagnosing huge numbers of people who may be carrying relatively insignificant amounts of the virus” Not only that, but the number of fatalities due to Covid19 may have been significantly over-counted in the USA.  That country’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC) stated that:

The CDC has attempted to offer a real estimate of the overall death rate for COVID-19, and under its most likely scenario, the number is 0.26%. Officials estimate a 0.4% fatality rate among those who are symptomatic and project a 35% rate of asymptomatic cases among those infected, which drops the overall infection fatality rate (IFR) to just 0.26%

Here in Ireland, a similar trend is emerging. On 3/7/2020 HIQA reported that the official number of Covid-19 deaths were likely over-estimated.  The projection of 85,000 deaths and a healthcare system overwhelmed by Covid19 casualties, as envisioned by then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, then Minister for Health Simon Harris and Dr Tony Holohan then Chief Medical Officer did not – thankfully – transpire. This figure was subsequently revised downwards to 39,000.

The question needs to be asked: what were these predictions based on?

Dr Tony Holohan referenced computer modelling when he went before the Oireachtas Special Committee Covid-19 Response on 19th May 2020, in a reply to questioning from Roisin Shortall TD who was rightly concerned about “the basis and rationale for decision-making and the need to be much more transparent”. Dr Holohan said that: “Regarding the R-nought, it is based on the summation of three models and it is due to be published…my understanding is that the work is going through a peer review process at the moment…but the intention is to publish that”. Important questions remain, however. Who had overall responsibility for the epidemiological and mathematical computer modelling? Who wrote the actual code and what inputs were used?

As far as I’m aware if this modelling code has not been made publicly available. Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, an epidemiological adviser to the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) published the modelling code used as a justification for Boris Johnson’s government ordering a lockdown. Ferguson’s work then attracted some criticism from software experts. Six months on, the Irish people are surely entitled to similar courtesy from public health officials. If NPHET is apprehensive about receiving similar criticism, this cannot be grounds for further delay.

Indeed, the Irish people have shown extraordinary commonality of purpose in following the many rules and regulations we have been subjected to. As the economic impact becomes more apparent in the months ahead, so will the ameliorative spending required to make up the shortfall in economic stimulus absent during the lockdown.

Government spending in July alone was up €8.7 billion compared to 2019. The Green Party is big into sustainability so must surely recognise this is a level of public expenditure that is unsustainable. Perhaps the Green Party’s long standing opposition to air travel on climate change grounds makes that party more sanguine about the lack of on-arrival Covid19 testing at our airports, but the sharp drop-off in tourism has seen the billions of euros generated by this industry diminish to a trickle. The Greens will find it a lot more difficult to implement some of their subsidy-reliant, low carbon policies in future without the tax revenues generated by tourism.

The virus now causing the most damage is fear. If this government truly wants us to live with Covid-19 then their focus must be on protecting the vulnerable categories of citizenry and letting the rest of us get on with living our lives. Getting the nation to Level 1 on the plan is crucial and getting Ireland off the plan altogether should be the goal over the next 12 months. A citizenry grown accustomed to the State micromanaging every aspect of their social interaction will never regain the confidence to return to the kind of social and economic activity that is the engine of prosperity in our towns and cities.

Nor can the unrealistic expectation fostered by some public health figures that the State has the solutions to engineer a risk-free society and can produce them like pulling rabbits from a hat, be allowed to persist if public trust in the institutions of the State is to survive.



Séamus Ó Riain is Acting Chairman of Renua Ireland 


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