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Wait: Were Irish hospitals….. never under that much Covid pressure?

There’s been a lot of attention given, in the lockdown-sceptical parts of the Irish internet, in recent days, to the results of a freedom of information request made by a website called freepress.ie. Here’s what they say:

Freepress.ie can exclusively reveal that Irish hospitals were never under strain throughout 2020, based on newly released official health system hospital data arising from our freedom of information request.

The contradiction between the official data and representations that the health service has been under dangerous strain is obviously extremely important. The charts below will show you just how how busy Irish hospitals have been.

The new data directly contradicts the reporting and statements of Irish politicians, RTE and other Irish mainstream media, and the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) covid-body NPHET. These Irish establishment bodies have consistently told the public that the hospital system was at breaking point since the Covid issue surfaced. Their own HSE data completely contradicts that contention.

The data is all at their website, if you want to read it. In their URL, they say the data “proves there was no pandemic”. That is, with great respect, completely wrong. It proves no such thing.

What it shows, basically, is that Irish hospital occupancy (the number of patients in hospital, as a percentage of the number of beds available) did not rise substantially above normal levels for most of 2020. In fact, during the summer months, hospital occupancy was well below normal levels for recent years.

This, the free press contends, shows that the pandemic either did not exist, or was never anything like the threat it was argued to be by the Government, NPHET, the media, and various other villains.

There are a couple of problems with this analysis, however. First, hospital occupancy by itself is not a very reliable figure unless you can be absolutely certain that the number of beds stayed constant. For example, if in one year a hospital has 100 beds, and on a given day, 90 people are in them, then the hospital has 90% occupancy. But suppose that the very next year, the hospital has 200 beds, and 150 people in them. Then the hospital only has 75% occupancy. To simply look at the percentages, you might think that there were fewer people in hospital in the second year, when actually there were nearly twice as many people in hospital. It’s just not a very reliable number on its own.

Of course, it is unlikely that Irish hospitals doubled the available number of beds. But some level of increase is likely, and that may account for some of the figures.

The other, and much bigger problem, with the data, is that it doesn’t compare like with like. Proponents of lockdown will simply argue – and this is an unfalsifiable argument – that lockdown itself prevented any number of people going to hospital with covid, or for non-covid reasons. For example, they might say, a huge reduction in traffic volumes on Irish roads last year may have resulted in a reduction in the number of people going to hospital with bumps and bruises from car accidents. In the summer months, in particular, a reduction in outdoor activities may have contributed. And, of course, they will say that without lockdown, the hospitals may have been full of Covid patients.

From that perspective, these figures just tell us that with lockdown, there were fewer hospital patients. They don’t tell us anything in particular about Covid, or the success or failure of the lockdown. On that point, sorry to say, the Free Press is over-egging the pudding substantially.

Where FreePress has a good point, however, is in this graphic, related to St. Luke’s cancer hospital:

It’s fair to say that St. Lukes had no reason, being a cancer hospital, to increase bed capacity for Covid. It’s fair to say, too, that there is no reason to suspect that cancer, being a non-communicative disease, was impacted positively by lockdown. We would expect the same number of people, roughly, to have cancer with or without lockdown. And yet…. a huge reduction in the number of people in that hospital being treated for cancer, compared to previous years.

That does suggest that the lockdown significantly impacted people’s treatment in Irish hospitals, and potentially their life expectancies, over the past year.

And of course it was not simply a matter of cancer treatment in hospitals: Cancer screenings, we know, were suspended. It is very likely that there are people walking around in Ireland today with cancer who should know about it, but who do not, and who will not, until it’s too late.

It’s also the case, to be fair to the Free Press, that the Government’s worst fears about Covid were never realised, at least in terms of the health service being overrun.

It’s hard to blame them for their actions in 2020, though. Had they chosen a different path, and the hospitals had been overrun, all those condemning them today would be condemning them from the opposite angle. Being cautious in the face of the unknown was probably the right call.

But Covid is no longer the unknown. We have a fair idea, at this stage, what it does, and how many people it hospitalises. We have data from around the world, and we know that no health service, anywhere, was overrun, regardless of the severity, or laxity, of lockdown.

That suggests that the policy should be tweaked. The problem is, it has not been tweaked.

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