Daniel McConnell: Light at the end of the lockdown tunnel is always just out of reach

Since the imposition of the latest lockdown, after the major spike in case numbers over Christmas, the public’s appetite to continue to adhere to the letter of the law is showing signs of strain, writes Daniel McConnell
Daniel McConnell: Light at the end of the lockdown tunnel is always just out of reach

Members of the Gardaí at a checkpoint during the Covid-19 pandemic in Dublin's city centre. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

People are tense. Everyone is tense.

It seems that conversations have an edge to them. The simplest of tasks are more challenging and, as a result, everyone is fried and tempers are fraying.

And what is worse, there is no clear sign of an end to all of this.

A further four to six weeks of level 5 Covid-19 restrictions are expected to be announced on Tuesday — it's sadly predictable but no less devastating to a weary nation.

The Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19 will meet on Monday ahead of the full Cabinet meeting on Tuesday when the formal decision will be taken. It's somewhat of a done deal but what is not certain is the public’s willingness to stay the course.

Since Leo Varadkar, the then Taoiseach made the announcement to commence the first lockdown on the steps of Blair House in a Washington DC last March, public support for extremely restrictive domestic limitations on our personal freedoms have been exceptional in the main.

As month after month rolled by, as we bounced in and out of various levels of lockdowns people have stayed the course generally. 

Yes, there have been infringements — from rogue publicans to meat factory owners — but they have been a small minority.

But since the imposition of the latest level 5 lockdown, after the major spike in case numbers over Christmas, the public’s appetite to continue to adhere to the letter of the law is showing clear signs of strain.

Gardaí issued more than 300 fines to motorists found in breach of the Covid-19 travel restrictions last weekend, as part of a crackdown on people engaging in non-essential travel.

Fines worth well in excess of €30,000 were issued in various parts of the country while hundreds more drivers received a caution and were told to return to their homes.

In Co Wicklow, members of the Roads Policing Unit issued 170 fixed charge penalty notices (FCPNs) to people who had travelled up the mountains. About 100 of these were issued on Saturday and the remainder on Sunday. 

Another 200 drivers avoided a fine but were instructed to return to their homes on Sunday.

The Government’s decision to open up the country in December, after a six-week severe lockdown, was largely welcomed but the wisdom of it has since come under the microscope.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, on Pat Kenny’s Newstalk show on Thursday morning, was pressed by the broadcaster about that decision and where it has left the country.

Mr Donohoe said he accepted that the government's deviation from public health advice at Christmas "had a clear effect" on where Ireland is now.

"Let there be no doubt about this, I of course accept responsibility as a member of the government for decisions I've made, and the impact they've had and for all the other things I've had to do in the 10 to 11 months that I've been trying to lead and work on behalf of our country to deal with Covid-19,” he said.

"I do accept that the decisions that we made was one of the factors in where we are now, but also we've made many other decisions that have helped our country deal with this disease, and help our citizens, deal with the consequences of this disease,” he added.

Defending the decision, Donohoe said: "We were making those decisions with hundreds of 1000s of people not having a job or trying to get them back to work and seeing if it was possible.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said he accepted that the government's deviation from public health advice at Christmas "had a clear effect" on where Ireland is now. File Picture: Moya Nolan

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said he accepted that the government's deviation from public health advice at Christmas "had a clear effect" on where Ireland is now. File Picture: Moya Nolan

"It's clear, does that, in conjunction with the new variant, and in conjunction with the amount of additional contact that happened across the Christmas period has now been one of the factors that has had an effect on where we are now,” he said. 

Donohoe said the government would reflect on their mistakes.

"Regarding the history, of course, we do need to debate it, and I, of course, need to be held to account for decisions that I've made," he said.

This week, much frustration has been raised about the continued harshness of restrictions being inflicted upon the population when large numbers of people have continued to be allowed enter the country, with less than robust testing and tracing by the State.

Indeed, many in recent days have looked to the experience of Australia and New Zealand whereby inbound passengers are escorted off planes by security and forced to quarantine for 14 days in hotel rooms at their own expense. 

They have asked why can’t we deploy such a regime here.

While the Government can take some legitimate flack for opening the country up in December, it is more open to criticism for its failure to stem the tide of incoming passengers into Ireland, particularly from the UK and South Africa in light of new variant strains of the virus.

As Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats pointed out, between 11 December and 3 January, 118,000 passengers arrived by air and a further 20,000 arrived by sea, however, 49%, or one in two people who came in, did not confirm properly fill out the passenger location form or confirm where they were staying.

“Yet, we are currently seeing people being fined for travelling beyond 5 km if they do not have a good reason to do so,” she said, pointing out the gaping hole in the Government’s approach.

Varadkar in his response to her said introducing a quarantine system would be “disproportionate and unworkable,” however it is clear there is not unanimity in Government as to that view. Others, speaking to me said such measures “cannot be ruled out”.

But even at that, whether or not we move to a quarantine system in the coming weeks, the truth is this conversation is happening way too late. 

A classic case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

But all the while, our schools remain closed and the patience of parents and students is being tested daily.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly. File Picture: Julien Behal

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly. File Picture: Julien Behal

Warnings that it could be another four weeks before schools open is a hammer blow, especially when we have had repeated assurances from our leading public health doctors that the classroom is safe.

For the lockdown to be adhered to, the public must see that the limitations to our personal freedoms are making a difference, that they are just and that they will end soon.

On all three fronts, the Government is flunking its lines.

After a month of increased restrictions, we are still seeing case and death numbers at record highs, the inconsistency in relation to air travel is unforgivable and the prospect of another four to six weeks of lockdown is heart-breaking.

It is as if the light at the end of the tunnel always just out of reach.

Even the roll-out of the various vaccines has been mired in controversy and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly is once again facing criticism from within his own party, from the opposition and the public.

While lockdown fatigue is understandable if we are to get out of this, can it be tolerated? Are even stiffer penalties and sanctions answer?

I don’t think so.

The country appears ready to accept stiffer restrictions for those coming in here from abroad, if it allows us end this nightmare. 

News that the UK is thinking about instigating such a move only makes it more likely in this State.

The Government must regain control of the narrative.

More in this section

Home Delivery
logo-ie

HOME DELIVERY SERVICE

Have the Irish Examiner delivered to your door. No delivery charge. Just pay the cover price.

IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox

LOTTO RESULTS

Saturday, February 27, 2021

  • 15
  • 29
  • 34
  • 38
  • 40
  • 43
  • 14

Full Lotto draw results »