Is the government to blame for the recent dramatic rise in Covid-19 cases in Ireland?

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Is the government to blame for the recent dramatic rise in Covid-19 cases in Ireland? Katie Kilcoyne and Joseph Kavanagh debate.

YES - Katie Kilcoyne 

Reminiscing on the governments’ decision to allocate Level 3 restrictions for December may now be described as the nightmare before Christmas. The Covid-19 surge over the festive season left little to celebrate, instead leaving in its place a stark situation of increased positive cases and mortalities. The distant yearning of normality for the Christmas period blinded not only the government but the public at large to the consequences of the increased number of socialising events - a consequence that is only currently showing its latitude. To illustrate the extent of damage that was caused it is necessary to compare the current Level 5 restrictions with those announced in October 2020. The daily record reached an all-time high on the 17th October with 1276 cases being recorded. However, in comparison to now, 8227 cases were documented on the 8th January this year. These figures illustrate a stark increase in positive cases by 544%. Such figures fall into the guilty palms of the Irish government by way of failure to adhere to NPHET’s recommendations and are the result of rushing formalities and regulations to ensure for some normality to be injected into the Christmas period. 

On the 25th November 2020, NPHET met concerning the easing of Level 5 restrictions. Numerous issues were raised including that of the pressure surrounding the Christmas period. Due to the decrease in the 7-day positivity rate from 3.9% to 2.7%, they agreed that from the beginning of December, the country could enter Level 3. However, it was from this point on that the recommendations of NPHET and the actions of the government were fissured. The government acted irresponsibly and failed to consider the long-term effects of their decisions. Through the entirety of the meeting, NPHET underscored the importance of preventing the undoing of the effort which had been put in by the Irish people to this point. They furthered cautioned that if any signs were to appear of the virus spiralling out of control, that early intervention would be key in preventing the unravelling of previous efforts to contain the virus. 

One must roll their eyes at the foreboding of this situation. Here we are over 6 weeks since NPHET released such recommendations, in the midst of another Level 5 lockdown. NPHET went on to highlight that any stages that will be implemented after the Level 3 restrictions in December would depend solely on the clarity, simplicity, consistency and humanity of the then-current restrictions. Clarity. Consistency. Humanity. Three key areas which the government did not adhere to. In the eyes of the government, they were given the green light to reopen retail and the hospitality sector. They did not see the bigger picture of their actions. They did not see the number of positive cases which would result in the augmented numbers of social gatherings. They did not see the strain it would put on Irish hospitals throughout the country and they most definitely did not see the number of people who would be placed on ventilators as a result. 

There is very little humanity to be found in the governments’ decision. NPHET recommended that if a Level 3 was to be introduced in Ireland that it would be safer to keep both the retail and hospitality sector shut, and instead allow an easing of restrictions on families and friends meeting. The government did the opposite of this. The dearth of consistency between the government and NPHET has had its effects on the rest of the country. As a result of rash decisions, more people are getting sick which require medical aid. This creates further strains on the Irish health system, an institution which was already under great pressures. It is clear to see a domino effect has occurred as a result of the government introducing Level 3 restrictions which were not up to standard. The government believed they were giving the Irish public an early Christmas gift. This present came wrapped in Irish strengths and efforts but inside hid something nefarious. Once this grime gift was opened by the nation, it gave us nothing but death, illness and further pain and suffering. The torn off gift tag which neatly read: ‘To the people of Ireland. From the government.’ 

The current situation in the Irish state is harrowing. This Covid-19 surge did not have to happen. It is the result of poorly made decisions, and a lack of communication and common sense. It has unravelled months of hard work and labour put in by not only the front-line workers but the individuals throughout the country who stayed at home, isolating themselves in hope that their actions would be rewarded with the eradication of Covid-19. Instead this January, we have been met by the ghost of Christmas past. We are mocked and reminded of memories. Memories of what the state could have done, what was done, and we are now living with the consequences.

REBUTTAL to YES – Joseph Kavanagh

“Numbers never lie” - is that not how the saying goes? I thank my colleague for noting the case numbers, case rates and various statistics relating to the last horrific year we have all endured. I would point to all my colleague’s numbers and say, we all watch the news, all wait for 6pm when the next round of human loss is presented to us, it has been this way since March 2020. 

My colleague seems to believe these figures were hidden, that none of us had been aware of how easily this disease can take hold, this of course, is not true. We all knew the consequences of socialising and, as I have pointed out, the Government knew that people were tired and down, and by allowing some limited, controlled interaction it would give the public respite. It appears however, we all lost the run of ourselves. We did not pare-back our social contacts as much as we should have. People can argue that they did, but as my colleague has shown, the numbers say it all. 

The Government acted quickly upon seeing the unfolding situation was not going to plan, and while it is extremely easy to blame those in charge, it must be remembered, the Government is not in your living room, there is a finite number of Gardaí and public resources. How would the Government have policed this period? While we must acknowledge the work of NPHET, they have one objective, public health. It may sound cold and inhuman to think of factors outside of this, but a Government has other issues it must address. Covid-19 will end, and they need to be sure there is a country left to run. 

The phrase was always “We are all in this together”, and we were always informed to act responsibly, but what the Government cannot see will not hurt them but will hurt our loved ones.

NO – Joseph Kavanagh

The last few weeks have seen a climb in cases across the country, so much so that the nation has gone from one of the best examples of controlling Covid-19 in Europe to one of the worst in the world. And so, we ask ourselves: who is to blame? Many have taken to blaming the Government – people believe their downfall was not taking the advice of NPHET or Dr Holohan as gospel.

It is undeniable: Dr Holohan has become a beacon of light and stability for us all; his ability to address the nation several times a week for nearly a year without a single blunder has many politicians green with envy. However, we must also remember this is a democracy, and whether we like it or not, the three parties now in power represent the majority of the population, despite Deputy McDonald’s claims. 

Our elected representatives made a decision, and that decision was to loosen restrictions around the Christmas period. We were told it would not be a “normal Christmas” but would be as close to one as we could hope for. People have argued, with the benefit of hindsight, this was a mistake; they should not have gone against the expert advice. We can deny it and take the moral higher ground: had the restrictions been tougher, we wouldn’t have met one another. But after nine months of suffering, loss and staying at home, people were tired and feeling isolated. Many family and friends I know had grown weary of being locked at home and had decided they were going to meet a select few - restrictions or no restrictions. I am not talking about house parties or large group gatherings; I am talking about meeting in a garden, going for a walk or a takeaway coffee. I believe the government knew this would happen, and therefore made the decision to loosen the restrictions to try and provide some regulation and respite. 

They did not, however, expect the current exponential increase in cases, nor did they expect the arrival of the new UK strain of the virus, which has been linked to about 60% of new cases in the Republic. The Covid situation is a dynamic phenomenon, ever changing and completely unpredictable. 

In the spirit of Christmas, and perhaps after crushing the first and second waves with an impressive attitude of resilience, it is quite possible we may have let our collective guard down. We may have forgotten how rampant this virus is, and how it does not discriminate.

In the first and second waves, I had no one close to me suffering from the virus, and for that I count myself incredibly lucky. However, in this horrific third wave, I find my cousin; two of my aunts; my brother-in-law as well as his family, hit with this unforgiving disease. They have no idea where they picked it up, and the contact tracing confirmed my sister as their only close contact. Thankfully, she never caught the virus. This proves that you can do everything right and still get hit with it. The reason I raise this example is that people who have the virus, whether they know they have it or not, are moving around in the community. The only place they may have picked it up is the supermarket, and while we may never know where they got it, it demonstrates how the virus is not only spread via social gatherings.

Despite the intention to provide us all with a meaningful Christmas, the cases increased, and the government acted quickly: restrictions were put back in place, and we now find ourselves in a situation that resembles a little too closely March 2020 - but with the awful addition of more illness, and as a result, more death.

It is argued that the government should have kept restrictions tighter, kept their control on the situation, but at the end of the day, the state must decide when their laws cross the point of the necessary to the draconian. People were always going to move around at a time of year that is about being with family and those you care about. Had the restrictions been tighter, the Government would have been ridiculed by both media and the opposition; perhaps called heartless, or with the words “dictatorship” or “fascist” thrown around the Convention Centre. You see, that is the difficulty with being in power in politics - no matter what you do, the opposition will always wait until you make a decision before commenting or taking a stance. This ensures they are always on the right side of an argument. It may take a while for us to know what decisions were right or wrong, what gambles paid off and what ones did not, but at the end of the day this is a disease that does not relent or stop. For that reason, a Government needs to react quickly and without hesitation, perhaps having to U-turn on decisions made less than a week before. To me, this government acted with swift decisiveness when indicators were showing a deteriorating situation over the Christmas period, restriction were put back in place by the 27th of December. The resulting increase in Covid-19 cases lands directly on us all. Society as a whole let our guard down and now, we must face the consequences.

REBUTTAL to NO – Katie Kilcoyne

A common denominator has been stressed by both articles. The yearning for a degree of normality. Yes, the government could not promise a normal festive period, yet their impetuous actions attempted to achieve this, nonetheless. By opening both retail and the hospitality sector, it allowed for large gatherings in the absence of social distancing. In an attempt by the government to establish a somewhat normal Christmas they allowed for the creation of a stark and despondent New Years. The government did not consider the risks of their actions. There is a clear lack of conviction from the government regarding the measures they introduced as it failed to align with the message that they have attempted to spread for the last nine months. Since March, the government have implored the public to follow guidelines, be responsible for their actions and to consider the people who are at high risk before making any rash decisions. It has turned out to be somewhat of a paradox.

My colleague commented that the government had to consider at what point would their measures surrounding restrictions be viewed as being draconian in nature. However, it was the opposite that was the issue. The government should have considered the amount of autonomy they were creating and the consequences of such decisions. They should have examined their injudicious actions of easing restriction too hastily and too prematurely. The government should have considered the injustice they were doing for not only the general public but for healthcare and frontline workers who have worked tirelessly over this stressful period. The government favoured rapacious measures over conscientious ones. The decision to ease restrictions was not made in the best interest of the Irish public. It was a facade. It was made to mirror such intentions; however, our current situation is portraying a different image.