C: Anastasiia Chepinska / Unsplash

Why will the laws against fun be the last to go?

Last week, on Newstalk, I said to Kieran Cuddihy that the Government had, effectively, given up the fight against Covid, and were no longer trying to stop the spread of the virus. You can listen to that here:

Yesterday, we got more confirmation of that:

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has defended the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic this winter as he confirmed that rules on close contacts will be relaxed from Friday.

Mr Martin said the Cabinet decision that close contacts of confirmed cases no longer need to restrict their movements for five days – once they have had a booster shot – reflected progress in the fight against the Omicron variant of the virus.

He said it has been made possible by a “very strong” vaccination programme saying more than 10 million doses have now been administered.

Once again, we see evidence that the Government has given up the fight against the spread of covid. Though they do not, will not, and can not say so in public, every policy move the Government has made since Christmas – re-opening schools, relaxing travel restrictions, and now, allowing close contacts to move freely – has been in one direction: Towards accepting that the virus is spreading, that it is now relatively harmless, and towards getting back to normal.

And yet, all of the restrictions that remain in place are effectively restrictions against fun, or recreation: Cinemas still have to close at 8pm, as do pubs, and nightclubs.

There is no particular logic to this: The Government’s policy is, in effect, that people who might be infected with Covid (that is, after all, what a close contact is) can go to the workplace, or school, or almost anywhere, without restriction, apart from the pub or the cinema.

Is there any evidence that pubs and cinemas are a more dangerous environment than a workplace canteen, or an open-plan office? If there is, we have not seen it.

What this amounts to, in effect, is an enduring ban on fun. There are reasons for it, but those reasons are not medical.

The reasons – this is speculation, but see how accurate you feel it might be – are political, not scientific. Since day one of this pandemic, the emphasis has been on “responsible” behaviour. We have had regular outbursts of puritanism – think back to Tony Holohan’s comments about disgraceful scenes in Dublin because young people were on the streets, or to the brief outrage about student parties around the University of Limerick, or Golfgate. The idea has long been seeded by the Government that the responsible thing to do is to avoid anything that might be considered fun, or recreational, and stick to  “necessary journeys” and things like that.

In other words, you can move around freely, but only if it is in a good cause. Don’t be enjoying yourself, is the message, because that would be inappropriate and an insult to the poor nurses. That message has been extensively internalised by a section of the public and, hence, you get the occasional panic about irresponsible students. If the students had been doing something necessary or important like, say, attending a protest about Donald Trump’s racist Government, then derogations would be willingly offered by public, Government, and media alike. But for drinking and smooching? No. Unnecessary, and therefore irresponsible.

For that reason, the laws against fun and socialisation will be the last to go. It is a symptom of the puritan mindset that the pandemic has introduced – or re-introduced – to Irish society. It is acceptable to get Covid in the workplace, but unacceptable to get it from kissing an attractive person in a nightclub.

The laws against fun serve a secondary purpose too, in that they maintain the veneer of seriousness to the Government’s non-existent efforts to stop the spread. That you cannot go to the pub is a real restriction on your freedom, akin to a child being grounded. The whole country is now in the position of that grounded child: Go to school, do your homework, but no playstation, and no seeing your friends.

It is about communicating the seriousness of the problem. It is not, in reality, about doing anything about the problem.

We should not, of course, accept this. If it is safe to work, then it is safe to play. If it is safe to go to school, it is safe to go to the cinema. If it is safe to eat in a work canteen, it is safe to eat in a restaurant.

The hospitality industry deserves better than to be punished for the sake of sending a message. And the public deserve better than to be treated like children.

The regulations, at this stage, are a farce. Our continued toleration of them is bizarre, and, it must be said, somewhat depressing.

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