We are now, in January 2022, finally in the phase of the war on Covid where the Irish Government has accepted defeat, and begun pulling all of its forces back from the front. This week, in no particular order, we have seen an announcement that schools will re-open with no additional covid restrictions in place. We have seen an announcement that the Government is to invest millions of euro to acquire anti-viral drugs. And we have seen an announcement that incoming passengers to Ireland will no longer be required to present a negative covid test before being admitted to the country.
These are, objectively, not the kinds of thing you do if your policy objective is, any longer, to “slow the spread”.
Consider, for example, that last week, the Government restricted PCR tests to those over the age of 40. PCR testing is the only official mechanism the state has for recording Covid cases.
Ireland will send hundreds of thousands of children into schools this morning, and, if they display covid symptoms, they will not, at present, even be sent for a test. There will be no contact tracing. Detecting covid, and taking preventative measures against it, is now solely the duty of parents, via antigen testing.
An inevitable consequence of this policy is that covid will spread, literally unchecked, through schools in the weeks to come. The vast, vast, majority of cases will not be officially reported, and a good number will never even be detected.
It is also, too, given the relative ineffectiveness against infection of the current generation of covid vaccines, a certainty that the decision to abandon the test requirement for entry will mean that more covid cases and infections arrive in Ireland.
All of this, of course, is taking place against the background of record levels of infection in the community.
The Government, in other words, has given up any real attempt to stop the spread. They have not made a formal announcement to that effect – doing so would probably cause complete panic amongst a section of the population – but, make no mistake, that is what they have done.
And it is good news.
It has been obvious for some time – well over a year, in fact – that stopping covid is simply not possible. Australia tried: Their country locked down more firmly than any other western democracy, at least to foreigners, in an effort to keep the virus at bay. They currently have record case numbers. Measures to restrict the spread of the virus may, indeed, have slowed the spread. But more accurately, they seem to have only delayed the spread: Ultimately, all of us are going to get covid, if we live anything approaching a normal life.
And the good news is that thanks to some combination of vaccines, natural immunity, and the virus becoming less virulent by itself, the existential threat to our health services appears to have passed. Record case levels are not translating, anywhere on earth, to record levels of deaths or hospitalisations. No health service, anywhere in the western, modern world, is collapsing.
In these circumstances, the decision to let the virus rip, so to speak, is unambiguously the correct one.
But the problem that the Government faces is political: So much capital, both political capital, and financial capital, has been expended on scaring the public about covid that it is almost politically impossible for them to tell the public that the strategy has changed, and letting the virus run wild is now the plan.
That explains why some restrictions will endure: Not because they work, or have any pretence at working, but because Government must maintain the pretence of the war long after the treaty of surrender has been signed.
And so, we will have masks without end, for a while yet. Pubs will remain closed. People will still get their little vaccine certificates of good citizenship which, at this stage, amount to little more than the service medals all soldiers get on return from a war.
In a short time though, those restrictions will come under pressure. It does not matter what anybody insists: the fact is that if the policy adopted by the Government this week is good for schools, then it must, also, be good for pubs, and restaurants, and cinemas. The only way continuing restrictions on those areas can now be justified is on the basis that it’s okay for people to catch covid from their own children, but illegal for them to catch it from a friend in a pub. The Government, and public health might also, convincingly, be accused of having an inherent bias against recreation, and alcohol, and living life.
Ireland is already experiencing a historic surge in covid infections. The decisions taken by Government this week ensure that that surge will continue, and grow. And, in a few weeks, Covid will start to run out of new people to infect, at least until it mutates again, and comes back, next winter, or the winter after that.
We have lived through the evolution of a new, permanent, annoying form of the flu. We tried to stop it, and failed. Now, it is time to get back to normal life. This was the week Ireland’s Government, at long last, joined many of us in that conclusion.