This week’s #Covid19 reopening should have gone ahead

This week’s column first appeared on Broadsheet on Monday Oct 18th, the day before the government decided not to proceed with its original plan to lift most of the continuing Covid19 restrictions. I think ministers are making a mistake. They should have focused instead on (a) making life less burdensome for the vaccinated and (b) placing increased pressure on the 300,000 or so un-vaxxed to folks to get vaccinated ASAP. Though I accept full 100% coverage is impossible.

Getting more people to get their shots is what drives the Italian workplace Green Pass system (which I indirectly reference below). I recommend listening to this 17-minute Podcast on the Italian system. It is from my colleagues in BEERG/HRPA.  

The idea that the way to stop folks breaking rules is to make more rules is akin to saying if two wrongs don’t make a right… let’s try three.

It is absurd to hear the government talk about not lifting restrictions only days after boasting about our being the Covid resilience world leader.

Yet that’s where we are. You cannot turn on a news show without hearing yet another minister preparing us for the October 22 re-opening not going ahead.

The Taoiseach took it a step further in yesterday’s Sunday Independent. There he hinted that the government had already decided to pause further reopening. As if to sugar coat this failure of policy, Martin sought to comfort us by saying:

“… we are not contemplating going backwards. The only issue facing us now is going forward”

If he is expecting the public to be grateful that we are not going back into lockdown, he will be disappointed.

The government is doing this the wrong way around.

Rather than passively accepting that they cannot go ahead with the October 22 re-opening, they should be proceeding with it. Rather than preparing us for disappointment, they should also be tasking public health officials with putting the necessary measures in place.The majority of businesses, organisations, and the vast majority of us – by which I mean the majority of the 90% plus who are vaccinated – are fed up with the remaining restrictions. We do not take to the streets to protest the way the anti-vaxxers do. But that does not mean we are content to see another deadline slip by, unhonoured.

People know there are dangers and difficulties. That is why people got the vaccine in such incredible numbers. It is why people accepted and tolerated the longest lockdowns around.

They know that the new case numbers have risen in recent weeks, hitting 1,380 yesterday, though that is down from the alarming 2180 the day before.

They know there has been an increase in the numbers of Covid-19 patients in hospital, with daily admission figures now outstripping hospital discharges by almost 2:1.

But they know something else. They know that over 50% of those admitted to hospital, and sadly 65% of those who go in to ICU, are unvaccinated.

They know that our numbers in hospital and ICU are still among the lowest, though they are not as low as they were three weeks ago.

They know that over 90% of people over the age of 12 are vaccinated, leaving less than 10% of us, unvaccinated.

As dubious as this silent majority is about the notion of a “right to be unvaccinated,” they accept that opting not to get the Covid vaccine is a personal choice that people are free to make.

But they also know there is no right to be shielded from the consequences of your own [in]actions.

Postponing the October 22nd re-opening because of the vaccine hesitancy of  some 300,000 of our fellow citizens is neither fair nor proportionate.

I doubt many of those who have opted, either purposefully or unintentionally, to go unvaccinated would believe postponing the reopening is a fair response.

So, what should the government do?

Well, it should stop re-reading Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking and start looking around to see how other countries are managing to keep their numbers down.

Then it will see that many of those countries who were doing worse than us a few months ago, are now faring much better. They will see that all these countries use antigen testing a lot more than we do, a point made many times by Prof Luke O’Neill, including yesterday in the Sunday Independent.  

They will also see that these countries apply the Covid cert/pass requirement to all indoor activities/mass gatherings, and to all employment settings.

We should too.

This would enable 90% of us to get back to a relative normal, both in the workplace and socially.

The vaccination scheme would remain voluntary. There would be no compulsory vaccination. People who decide against getting the vaccine would have the negative test option to allow attend their workplaces.

Only those who refuse to get the vaccine and also refuse to produce regular negatives tests would fail to benefit from the re-opening.

Having to produce negative text certs every days might encourage more people to get their shots. At the moment only just over 1,000 persons per day are registering to get vaccinated.

Employers and employees are perplexed that a punter entering a café, pub or restaurant must produce a Covid cert/pass, while employees going to work do not.

As the Italian Green Pass** has shown, there is no data privacy or equality law obstacle to doing it. All the government has to do is to make the production of a Covid pass/cert, or a negative test, mandatory. Do that and the GDPR need for a lawful basis for requesting information is met.

For months political pundits have been wondering if the government parties might get a Covid bounce in the polls.

But …rather than the parties getting a vaccination bounce from the public, how about the government give the country the vaccination bounce it needs by proceeding with the October 22nd reopening?

That would show leadership. Who knows though… showing leadership might even provoke the public into giving Varadkar, Martin and Ryan the polling bounce the leaders long for but, as the two latest opinion polls confirm, never get.

Though the two polls, in The Mail on Sunday and The Sunday Times (Ireland), differ starkly in some respects, they agree on several findings. They also show a degree of consistency with recent polls.

They both show Sinn Féin well in front of the pack, each putting Mary Lou’s party at 31%. They also show the Greens, Labour, and the Social Democrats at between 4% and 6%.

It’s when it comes to the support figures for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that the two polls differ. Dramatically and diametrically. But, even so, the polls show the two parties combined at either 42% or 44%.

This is not good news for either Martin or Varadkar, regardless of which of them you think, or hope, is ahead. It is very unwelcome news for middle ground politics.

In 2016, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined were on 50%. By the end of 2018 and for most of 2019, the two parties were edging their combined total up to 60%. Today it has tumbled back down to less than 45%.

Both parties need to take a long hard look at themselves and change tack soon. Their current zero-sum game-playing is hurting both… and benefiting no one.

** The Italian Green Pass is an App which works like the Irish Covid Cert App. The App displays a green screen to show that the person has (a) had their full course of vaccinations OR (b) has recovered from Covid over the past 6 months OR (c) has had a negative swab test in the past 48 hours.  Once you fulfill one of these three requirements you get a Green for go – though the App does not show which criteria you met. This protects against any GDPR infringement, so the employer just knows that the person is eligible to attend for work, not whether the person fulfills criteria a, b or c.  

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