Cianan Brennan: The tale of Covid-19 is one of the Government becoming wise after the fact

Innovation and forward thinking could be the best way to handle this crisis rather than responding after the fact. 
Cianan Brennan: The tale of Covid-19 is one of the Government becoming wise after the fact

Pictured in the Department of Health today are Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly TD and Dr Ronan Glynn, Acting Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health, as they provide a Covid-19 update on the day that the Government has announced a two-week lockdown in Kildare, Laois and Offaly. Picture: Leon Farrell / Rollingnews.ie

There is little other way to contemplate the last week in terms of Covid-19 in Ireland than to feel wholly disheartened.

In implementing a three-county lockdown in a bid to stem the spread of an outbreak of the coronavirus, the Government has left itself wide open to the brickbats of those who feel the measures are unfair, and those who wonder why the warning signs weren’t heeded two months ago when calls for increased scrutiny of the meat processing industry were widespread.

That was a different Government of course, not that that will be of much comfort to health minister Stephen Donnelly or his Taoiseach.

Mr Donnelly has insisted that blame should not come into the equation when considering what has happened in Offaly, Laois, and Kildare, but it is perfectly understandable that people should want someone held accountable for what has transpired.

Our society as a collective has been through the wringer over the past six months, between restrictions, a tanking economy, and the constant personal stress such factors bring. Now our reward appears to be a resurgence in a sector in which the problems were well-flagged in advance.

Micheál Martin pointed out that the situation with Covid in the meat factories was “gravely serious” back in May, and suggested that outbreaks in the sector weren’t being handled as well as they should have been.

We have been here before. Similar issues in the nursing homes lead to a catastrophe in our long term residential settings. The fact that it happened across the globe is no excuse.

It’s also true that meat factories have been a problem everywhere, but that point is more damning than an excuse. The fact that this particular conflagration appears to have been exacerbated to a greater extent by the living conditions in direct provision, a stain on the nation’s soul, merely adds insult to injury.

On the lockdown itself, it’s hard to see what choice the Government had. While community transmission in the affected counties remains low, their incidence rate of the virus is close to seven times that of the country as a whole. Preventing travel in or out of the restricted areas should, in theory, be enough to stop the virus in its tracks.

That, coupled with an increase in testing in the affected areas, targeted testing within the factories themselves, and increased protections in nursing homes and other vulnerable settings, will hopefully work to stem the tide.

The Government’s speed in implementing the restrictions is to be commended. Clearly, some lessons have been learned from the slower response of early March. When it comes to Covid-19, prompt action is generally a minimum requirement.

Assessing the positives of the move is complicated by the fact this isn’t really a lockdown, though. Many businesses will shut, and travel will be discouraged, but moving around within the counties themselves, as well as visiting loved ones, is above board.

There are two further caveats. The first is that two weeks feels like a wholly inadequate period of time to get on top of the problem. Two weeks was the period for which creches and schools were initially shut back in March, remember. The second is whether or not the ‘non-essential travel’ nature of the regulations becomes open to abuse in the same manner that air travel to and from Ireland has.

One safe presumption is that this isn’t the last localised lockdown we will be seeing. At least one other nearby county came close to being cut off at the same time as the unlucky three that we’ve seen. If outbreaks continue to escalate at a similar rate elsewhere then further restrictions will surely follow.

Regarding the meat factories themselves, there are a couple of ways of looking at what has transpired. The response from the various establishments has not been uniform.

O’Brien Fine Foods in Timahoe in Kildare have taken as genuine an approach as is possible. The factory has issued a number of in-depth statements regarding developments, and provided a timeline regarding how it managed to record 88 confirmed cases of the virus in just over a week. Taking the company at its word, little more could have been done to prevent the outbreak. The cold temperatures and loud atmosphere in such a factory are perfect for the virus to prosper. Staff will remain on full pay and the company will be closed for the entirety of the two week restricted period.

Others were less enthusiastic. Irish Dog Foods in Naas originally been slated to reopen on Monday, having first closed on July 25 following the detection of its own outbreak. That decision was only reversed on Sunday.

Some suggested that the idea that poorly-paid workers with no sick leave rights are to blame for the current surge has been oversold. Nevertheless, the conclusion appears inescapable: meat factories in the region and residents within direct provision are the hotspots for the current crisis. The Venn diagram points to poor working conditions as being at least a factor.

But really, if you want someone to blame for the current situation, you should blame the Government.

The tale of Covid-19 in many cases at a Government level has been one of becoming wise after the fact.

Between lax travel restrictions, allowing thousands of Italian rugby fans to access the country just as their country became the planet’s second disaster zone, dithering over masks, and belated action on the nursing home situation months after the sector was flagged as a disaster waiting to happen, our two governments have appeared either extremely slow to learn or more concerned with keeping the economy alive than with public health, depending upon your perspective.

Now is perhaps the time to learn the hardest lesson of all: that innovation and forward-thinking could be a far better way of handling the virus than reacting after the fact.

Perhaps such an approach could be married with a push for a zero-Covid Ireland, one in which the curve is not flattened but crushed, and the virus eliminated. New Zealand, with no new cases for 100 days and a society mostly back to normal, bar in terms of air travel, is the poster child for same. A lot of short-term pain in terms of restrictions for long-term gain, in other words.

The argument against that is that the two countries are not comparable in terms of infrastructure or location. But really, what have we got to lose? If you were to ask the residents of this country if they’d accept such further pain for a return to normality, I suspect they’d snap your hand off.

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