Daniel McConnell: Basis for locking Dublin down again is flawed, crude, and unfair

Despite the guesswork, the NPHET recommended a shutdown of the capital again, which the Government has accepted
Daniel McConnell: Basis for locking Dublin down again is flawed, crude, and unfair

People prepare to dine in the outdoor seating area of a cafe in Dublin's city centre, as further restrictions in Dublin are imposed by the Government. Picture: Brian Lawless

'If it’s true, Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar, you’re closing Dublin restaurants today it will be a disaster for so many of us & our suppliers. I’ve spent over €65k reopening, took back all 40 staff with no wage cuts, huge effort to keep guests safe & now this catastrophe.. Gutted!' 

That was the curt statement on Twitter from Eamonn O’Reilly, owner of the two-Michelin-star Greenhouse restaurant in Dublin yesterday, before the Government announced the capital city's lockdown.

The bluntness of O’Reilly’s tweet typified the deep frustration and anger being felt by a sector which is withering on the vine.

False dawn after false dawn, restaurants and food-serving pubs in the main have responded magnificently to the crisis and been creative in how they have adapted to the new normal.

But as Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin put it in the Dáil on Thursday, there were 6,800 inspections of pubs over one weekend, yet there have only ever been five clusters associated with pubs, according to the figures released.

Doherty was contrasting the treatment of pubs and restaurants to that of meat plants, which have been responsible for at least 44 clusters throughout the State and at least 1,600 cases of Covid-19.

As we reported on our front page yesterday, the meat industry and health authorities have been slammed after it emerged that a meat plant in Cork had 226 positive Covid cases but never closed down, creating a major health risk.

Doherty asked why nothing had been done and what hold “meat barons” had over the State, saying those barons were “playing with people's lives in the interests of profit”, adding that testing was suspended in plants last week when capacity reached 72,000 and not the  100,000 limit.

It has emerged there were 226 cases associated with one plant in July.

“We understand that plant is in Cork, and that it was never closed down,” he said.

"Yet last week, testing in meat plants was suspended,” he remarked.

In response to the concerns raised by Doherty and Cork-based politicians, senator Tim Lombard and Sean Sherlock TD, the HSE in response to queries from the Irish Examiner, said it does not comment on individual cases or outbreaks to protect the privacy and confidentiality of those involved.

The failure to lock down meat plants or to tackle the terms and conditions for those who work there was equally scandalous.

But, the hands-off treatment for the meat plants is in sharp contrast to the approach now in place for Dublin, which is not based on evidence or science.

Economist Dan O’Brien was on radio this week and brought a welcome bout of reality to the seemingly never-ending train of doom from medical experts.

Speaking on Claire Byrne, O’Brien admitted he is not a medical expert but he is a numbers man, and quite clearly the numbers are at odds with what the prophets of doom have been saying.

Put simply, he argued that nowhere in the world has seen deaths rise at the rate they rose in the initial phase.

His argument was most compelling when speaking about Ireland and Covid. 

While he said the numbers needing hospital treatment for Covid-19 are creeping up, they are doing so gradually. 

They are not soaring, as they did in the spring.

“They are also still very low — there were 66 people in hospital suffering from the disease across the entire country as of yesterday's figures. 

"At the worst of the pandemic, 13 times more people were hospitalised with Covid,” he said.

The situation in intensive-care units is of slightly more concern. 

The number in ICUs across the country rose from seven one week ago — a level it had been stable at for weeks — to 14 yesterday.

The number in ICUs across the country rose from seven one week ago — a level it had been stable at for weeks — to 14 yesterday.
The number in ICUs across the country rose from seven one week ago — a level it had been stable at for weeks — to 14 yesterday.

It is extremely important in interpreting these numbers that we consider both the absolute numbers of people in hospital and the speed with which hospitalisations are changing, O’Brien said.

Not a single person under the age of 15 has died of Covid-19 in the Republic. For babies and children without serious health conditions, Covid presents a risk to life in the order of a lightning strike.

The risks change little among 15 to 24-year-olds. As of the latest figures this week, a solitary death has taken place among those who are coming of age and starting their adult lives.

But, sadly O’Brien’s voice of sanity is being drowned out by the myriad of medical people who have assumed the central role occupied by economists during the last crash a decade ago.

There is a growing concern that the basis for locking Dublin down again is flawed, crude, and unfair to people and small businesses.

All we have heard from the medical side is that people, when they argue pubs and restaurants could be the source of the spread, are misreading the data.

But they admit they don’t know for sure. It’s a guess. They have no solid evidence for this.

Philip Nolan, who I admire greatly, in an extended Twitter thread, sought to explain this situation.

“If I went out five days ago and caught the virus in a restaurant, it will have multiplied silently inside me for three days; then I will have started shedding virus, and potentially infecting others, for two days; today I become symptomatic, self-isolate, and get a test. 

"Public health only ask me about my contacts for the 48 hours before I developed symptoms.

"They don’t need to know where I got the virus; that happened five days ago. They want to know where the virus is going, who I might have infected, and prevent onward transmission. 

"We would like to go back and find out where people are getting the virus, but we don’t have the time or resources to pursue this academic exercise,” he tweeted.

So they don’t know and to find out is too much work and is a mere “academic exercise”.

Despite the guesswork, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) recommended a shutdown of the capital again which the Government has considered and accepted.

No one doubts the need to suppress the virus. As a country, we have shown a determination to knuckle down and put the shoulder to the wheel for the greater good.

In the Seanad yesterday, Michael McDowell said: “I have no confidence in Nphet for this very simple reason: the difference in treatment of meat plants and restaurants between it and the HSE is dramatic and inexplicable.

Closing down restaurants on this day in this capital will condemn vast swathes of vulnerable, underpaid people to go home to their bedsits, or wherever they are, and spend weeks alone in those premises without proper wages. 

"That is what will happen. It has not been scientifically justified,” he said.

“It is wrong. It flies in the face of the strategy announced two weeks ago by Government that it was going to open these places again. 

"It flies in the face of science. It is wrong,” he added.

The senator went so far as to say that NPHET and the HSE did "not deserve our respect".

He added: "They are implementing policies which are cruel, wasteful and extremely damaging to our economy and extremely damaging to public health in terms of cancer, psychiatry, psychology and well-being across the board. It is time we stood up.”

Hard to disagree with any of that.

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