Alison O'Connor: I have a horrible sense that the wrong choices were made this week

Peter Lunn reckons the Irish public want further restrictions to protect us against Covid. He, and they, may well be right
Alison O'Connor: I have a horrible sense that the wrong choices were made this week

In a week of further confusion, Peter Lunn of the ESRI said there had been a substantial shift in public sentiment, which was now clearly in favour of more restrictions. File picture: Colin Keegan/Collins

THE people in charge of our health service went to those in charge of the country this week to tell them, metaphorically speaking, that our hospitals are on fire. In response, in essence, the politicians handed the health heads a few extinguishers, opting against the use of the big firefighting machinery. This despite the rapidly expanding blazes. It’s time to cut the analogies here, but the bottom line is our official response system for dealing with Covid totally hit the skids this week. We will be paying a high price for that in the weeks to come.

What is it about November and the form of magical thinking that takes hold in officialdom in relation to this awful virus?

We saw what happened a year ago. The fallout from that period appears to be forming part of what is being said and done at the highest levels this week.

It all seems desperately unfair. However...

After the last two years, anyone who wants to deserves to be out seven nights a week. Our children should be at playdates and birthday parties every day. But that is in an ideal world and sadly that’s not where we currently live. Rather, it’s in a Covid-riddled one. For a few weeks now it’s been pretty clear we are heading for more trouble. It’s clear that the self-policing approach does not work when numbers are rising so rapidly.

It all seems desperately unfair. Equally, though, if I was a frontline doctor or a nurse right now I imagine I’d be feeling fairly angry, as well as exhausted. After two years of non-stop pressure in a sub-par health system, working night and day trying to keep people alive, I reckon I’d look at the ongoing revellery, and be tempted to think “to hell with them”.

I know, for instance, of one ICU nurse working in a major hospital. She is utterly exhausted, but working harder than ever because of the Covid numbers and the rate of illness among her colleagues. She has a family, but has no idea yet of her Christmas roster. She and others have delivered their absolute best to try and make people well. Now she is expected to do that for many people who have decided not to get vaccinated or have maybe not been as careful as they might have been given the current virus numbers. Motivation it ain’t.

Another week like no other

Let’s look at this week’s sequence of events. The latest Nphet letter went to Government at the end of last week. However, the up-to-date modelling from Phillip Nolan’s group was only available on Monday. So when the Cabinet Covid sub-committee met on Monday night, along with the CMO, and HSE chief Paul Reid, accompanied by chief clinical officer Colm Henry, the Nphet advice had not officially changed since the previous week.

The revised modelling suggests we wouldn’t see the peak of the current wave for about another four weeks, all the while hospitals remain under intense pressure.

Under the pessimistic scenario, at that peak, there could be around 450 people in ICU. The optimistic scenario sees around half that, up to 220 in ICU — similar to last January. So just imagine the utter chaos in our health system with a possible doubling of that.

On Monday night, it appears the politicians were not keen to push the envelope on restrictions, quite incredible really, given the new modelling. When it came to the things like closing nightclubs, curbing opening times of bars, and having Covid certs for hairdressers and gyms, Tony Holohan apparently said he wouldn’t be against these things but did not explicitly recommend them.

Therefore, it was left to Cabinet members to take the initiative.

They failed to do so, seemingly wrapped up in the issues of antigen tests and booster shots — both important, but with strong shades of the “silver bullet” approach. It certainly did not directly address the conflagration that is the emergency state of our hospitals. Anyway on the antigen test front, if the politicians were so obsessed with these, why is it all such a mess? They are difficult to get at the moment. No one is really sure when to use them and, even though it’s been officially decided they should be subsidised, the Department of Health strongly dislikes this idea.

The 'Meaningful Christmas' may be influencing Tony Holohan now

We need to recall the momentous fallout last year when Leo Varadkar basically disembowelled Tony Holohan and Nphet on live television. File picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews
We need to recall the momentous fallout last year when Leo Varadkar basically disembowelled Tony Holohan and Nphet on live television. File picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews

Going back to that November madness, we need to recall the momentous fallout from a year ago when Tánaiste Leo Varadkar basically disembowelled Dr Holohan and Nphet on live television. That set the scene for what came afterwards and the disaster which was our “meaningful Christmas”.

Ironically, at Monday night’s meeting, the Tánaiste was said not to be in favour of further restrictions to the “nighttime economy” until Nphet called for them.

There is some speculation that Dr Holohan’s November 2020 experiences may be having an influence now. It’s impossible to know but maybe he still feels stung by the way he was portrayed as being so recalcitrant then. Or maybe he thinks that if he offers strong recommendations on further restrictions now the response will be similar; that it’s better for it to come from the politicians. Interesting to hear him on RTÉ news on Wednesday sidestep a direct question on whether companies should cancel Christmas parties. He talked around it and mentioned organisations being responsible.

It’s pure speculation, but wouldn’t it have been a human reaction if, at Monday night’s meeting, Dr Holohan looked across at the HSE’s Paul Reid, now desperately trying to impress the Cabinet members of the seriousness of the situation, and the CMO thought of last November when he was recommending those strict lockdown measures? How the HSE boss let it be known then — including in a tweet — that the HSE did not share the sense of urgency felt at that time by Nphet? 

So it was with heavy hearts that the HSE people left that meeting, thinking that virtually no action was going to be taken, although clearly some semblance of sense took hold among the politicians subsequently when they made the very basic decisions such as a curfew for the hospitality industry and asking people to work from home.

But we all know now from bitter experience there is no point in simply throwing buns at the Covid elephant. Understandably, our politicians are weary and worried about public reaction. 

What Peter Lunn says

Prof Pete Lunn, the head of the ESRI’s behavioural research unit, spoke this week of a shift in public sentiment in favour of further Covid restrictions. File picture: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews
Prof Pete Lunn, the head of the ESRI’s behavioural research unit, spoke this week of a shift in public sentiment in favour of further Covid restrictions. File picture: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews

However, on Tuesday night on  The Tonight Show on Virgin Media, 
a man who has had his finger on the pulse of Covid public opinion since the beginning, Pete Lunn, spoke of a substantial shift in public sentiment. The public mood has clearly swung towards more restrictions, he explained.

This attitude, said the head of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit, had not been the case for most of 2021 — but this change is what their most recent research shows, with the shift in public opinion starting up to three weeks ago.

None of this is easy for the Government, trying to protect the health service and businesses. But there is a horrible sense the wrong choices were made this week.

Earlier on Tuesday evening, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told journalists the Government was not ruling out any further measures “and Nphet can come back at any particular time”.

The fire may well and truly be an inferno by that stage.

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