Unconnected, difficult situations often evolve in the same way. There are patterns in how conflict gathers momentum and, eventually, reaches a climax. Today there are two active, obvious if unrelated examples. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Brian Cowen saga each started with relatively small, all-too-easily-ignored, road bumps. Then, as more and more information became available, each saga demanded more attention. When it became obvious that each had widespread implications, the options on how we might respond became, all of a sudden, limited. The wriggle room shrank with every development, every new detail. All choices were and are — and will remain — hard. No observer can predict how the stories end, though anyone who hopes they will just peter out, that we will develop a kind of political or Covid-19 herd immunity, is hardly alone.
As a crisis evolves, managing information becomes ever more important. Information and language can be weaponised in game-changing ways. Getting a good, widely-accepted, and plausible balance between the carrot and the stick is important. That juggling was in play yesterday when proposals around how the economy might be re-primed became public. One suggestion is that the Government's stimulus package will extend a modified wage subsidy scheme until next April. The scheme may be broadened to include those currently unemployed and seasonal workers, but the State's contribution may be cut to make it possible to extend it. The timescale extension is hardly insignificant either.
If that idea, or even its discussion, can be be seen as carrot cajoling, then Stephen Donnelly, the health minister, brought the stick to bear when he warned that, if pubs reopened prematurely, that could “materially add to the possibility of a second wave”. He also said that the Government would prioritise the reopening of schools and healthcare facilities. Though Mr Donnelly did not say that only one or the other is possible, the implication is clear enough.
He was supported by his predecessor in health, Simon Harris, the further and higher education minister, who said the decision not to proceed with phase 4 of the reopening increases the ability to ensure that children return to education in September. It would, he said, have been grossly irresponsible to ignore public health advice and move forward with phase 4 in spite of "knowing that we have a huge body of work to do ... to get our kids back to school". We do not, he warned, want to see a situation where the virus recurs just as schools try to reopen.
That warning can hardly be ignored, especially as an autumn recurrence would have implications for those now happily working from home, especially those living alone. The novelty of the arrangement may have faded by then, and the real social isolation may begin to seem unduly heavy.
That pressure, and our nature as social beings, means the temptation to ignore guidelines and social obligations grows. We are, as Brian Cowen was when he was convicted, at a crossroads. We can be irresponsible, personally and socially, and hope against reason for a positive outcome -- or we can face reality and the disciplines that makes obligatory.