Michael Clifford:  The public has truly been sold a pup 

The government has been reluctant to adopt a heavy-handed approach to tackling the virus. But without enforcement, the plan is failing, writes Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford:  The public has truly been sold a pup 

There was another attempt to wave the law around like a big stick at the beginning of this week. Images of street drinking in Cork and Dublin prompted outrage. Cue a cack-handed attempt to formulate policy according to the latest social media image.

When is a lockdown an “ah sure it will be grand” lockdown? 

Things have come to a shuddering halt in the latest attempt to suppress the virus. 

“Progress has stalled,” is how chief medical officer Tony Holohan put it on Thursday. Two-thirds of the way through a term of level 5 restrictions, the results are not as they should be.

One glaring reason for this state of affairs is that the restrictions have not been imposed properly. 

It’s as if the government is operating on the assumption that it just issues a diktat to the public and then runs for cover, washing its hands of any responsibility

Sure, we will get exhortations that we must do what’s right, we should abide by the restrictions, we have to keep the greater good to the forefront of minds. That’s all very well for a carrot, but at this stage of the pandemic a bit of stick is also required and it’s nowhere to be seen.

Lockdown legislation

This is most obvious in the area of legislation. Ahead of the current lockdown the cabinet was of the belief that new laws would be required to ensure that people stayed onside. Virus fatigue had set in.

The Minister for Health brought a memo to cabinet on October 20 providing for fines and/or prison terms for organising gatherings or house parties and, crucially, on-the-spot fines — or fixed charge notice — for anyone found to have strayed beyond the 5km movement restriction.

The latter measure was well targeted. Similar legislation was in place in the Spring, but the on-the-spot fine was a new feature. As a deterrent, it was good move.

The legislation was rushed through the Oireachtas. On October 25, President Michael D Higgins signed it into law. Media reports at the time said that the Minister for Health would sign off on the regulation which would bring the law into force “within days”.

As of this week, the law is still not in force. The minister has not yet signed off on it. A query to the department on the matter received the following reply.

“The Department of Health is working closely with the Department of Justice to draft and finalise regulations around the introduction of fixed penalty notices. This is an urgent priority for the government.” 

Get that. The regulations have still not even been drafted. And it is an “urgent” priority. It would want to be considering the level 5 conditions for which the law was passed are most likely going to lapse in the next ten days.

Public compliance

The public, or at least that section of the public minded to make an effort to obey the restrictions, was sold a pup. Do your bit, the new law was designed to convey, and this will ensure that those less public spirited than you, will be forced to comply as well.

A cursory glance at any of the main routes into towns and cities around the state demonstrates that the 5km rule is simply not being observed. Dr Holohan referenced that the message about restricted movement is not getting through.

“You look at the traffic and you look at what’s going on in workplaces, people will tell you stories that carparks are full, some people are really not listening to this message. And they’re meeting up unnecessarily.” 

Why wouldn’t they when a deterrent we were all told was being put in place is simply gathering dust?

 Nobody fears an encounter with the gardaí in relation to straying beyond the 5km if the outcome will only be an instruction to turn around and go home.
Nobody fears an encounter with the gardaí in relation to straying beyond the 5km if the outcome will only be an instruction to turn around and go home.

From the outset, this government and the previous administration have been scared stiff to do anything that might be perceived as heavy-handed. Some of this can be attributed to an attempt to keep people onside, more though is down to insulating themselves from any political backlash.

Instead, they have resorted to waving the law like a threat and scurrying off. Is it any wonder that three weeks into the lockdown, large swathes of the public have copped on that there will be precious little enforcement?

The approach also drains credibility from the gardaí's role. Nobody fears an encounter with the gardaí in relation to straying beyond the 5km if the outcome will only be an instruction to turn around and go home.

The same attitude is informing what the public health officials are saying about an increased level of gatherings. After three weeks, it will have sunk in among those inclined to host parties or get-togethers that this law they were all going on about is nowhere to be seen.

Street drinking

There was another attempt to wave the law around like a big stick at the beginning of this week. Images of street drinking in Cork and Dublin prompted outrage. Cue a cack-handed attempt to formulate policy according to the latest social media image.

An Taoiseach Micheal Martin immediately reached for the law as a threat, when images of street drinking emerged online, only to withdraw that threat days later.
An Taoiseach Micheal Martin immediately reached for the law as a threat, when images of street drinking emerged online, only to withdraw that threat days later.

The Taoiseach and the Minister for Health immediately reached for the law as a threat. There would be a ban on takeaway sales from pubs until the relaxation of the level 5 restrictions. A  law would also be considered, we were told, to impose fines for street drinking.

Both measures met with fierce resistance from within parliamentary parties and from publicans. By Wednesday, the plans were scrapped. Again, the instinct in government was to appear to be doing something, anything, irrespective of the ultimate outcome.

Meanwhile, much of the focus of public debate in recent days is how we’re going to be fixed for Christmas. Will it be Level 2 or Level 3 or will we be stuck in the current moment?

The real issue is being neatly sidestepped — the level of restrictions is irrelevant if it is not enforced. Without that, the whole system loses credibility and the kind of drift that now appears to be underway will be accelerated.

Last March, at the outset of this pandemic, society was in a different place. We were in a state of shock and heightened fear. We were also under the impression that a spell of serious restrictions would just have to be endured and we’d be back on the road by the Summer.

This is a different landscape. Solidarity has frayed, annoyance has increased and many people are suffering financially and with their health. In such an environment it is extremely difficult to appeal to people’s better nature and hope for the best.

Enforcement does not have to mean being heavy handed. All it requires is a touch that will ensure the public is aware that a deterrent is in place. That will be enough for the vast majority to conform and put up with what is undoubtedly a major imposition.

Governing — and policing —  at this time is a horrendously difficult task. But if the system of restrictions is to maintain credibility it will have to be handled a lot better.

Without proper enforcement, imposing a damaging and demoralising lockdown could never achieve the desired goals. The stalling of progress in supressing the virus demonstrates this.

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