People do things and they say things. As hospitals once again fill with the sick and hospitality businesses bear the brunt of restrictions, it is reasonable to examine what some people have said and done in recent times, and ask how it may have contributed to the hole we are in now.
What ordinary people have been doing – in other words, their behaviour – has been at the centre of Government communications recently. It is suggested that “behaviour” has been the critical factor in gilding the path of the latest surge. People and businesses, especially in hospitality, have become lax about basics such as masks, distancing and Covid certs, so it goes. The suggestion is that the laxity is what has courted disaster.
It is a self-serving narrative for the Government and its advisers. It shifts the sole focus onto the public and businesses and absolves our leaders for any responsibility for the danger that has snuck up and threatens to overwhelm hospitals. It ignores how the public were nudged to behave, over many months, in statements from the Government and its advisers. It is also a stranger to basic human nature.
When society and the economy reopened after the world’s lengthiest and most draining lockdown, how exactly did the Government expect people to behave? More pertinently, how did it expect them to behave differently from the way in which they have done? Behaviour hardly has been egregious. Nobody is out there licking handrails to test the strength of their vaccines. Smokers aren’t giving random strangers blowbacks on the street. People largely have been behaving as you might expect them to.
As recently as five or six weeks ago, the Government was maintaining the position that it would end almost all restrictions, including social distancing, from October 22nd. That sent a signal to people that is proving hard to reverse. Look back further at what was said when our leaders were promoting vaccination in summer. Those who were jabbed were encouraged to resume social activity. So they did.
The chief medical officer, Tony Holohan, has consistently warned people to observe basic public health measures such as masks and hand washing when they socialise. But he has also, at times, given the all-clear to interact. In an open letter ahead of a May 10th relaxation of rules, he told older people to "get back out there". On May 12th, he said: "You can trust your vaccine. You are now ready to be on the go and enjoy the benefits." On July 12th, he said people could "have confidence in your vaccine and enjoy socialising and meeting with other vaccinated people indoors", while still being careful.
The May 10th relaxation permitted socialising among three households at home with no social distancing or masks. It was inevitable that this mentality would stretch out over time into a relaxation through wider society. There are always anecdotes to disprove the rule, but I believe most people’s behaviour has largely remained within acceptable boundaries of a new normality. It isn’t even a typical normality.
Many people are still more cautious than before. There may be slippage, yes, but it would be unfair to suggest that broad swathes of people behaving unreasonably is the root cause of our current havoc.
It ought to be clear enough by now that, rather than people’s behaviour, the biggest contributor to where we are now is that the vaccines do not work as well or for as long as we were told they would.
Another pertinent question is if the Government and its medical advisers did enough, in their decision making, to prevent hard restrictions returning to the economy and society, which the mood music suggests may get even harder. A consensus appears to be emerging that, no, they did not do enough, and that sense is coagulating around key issues such as boosters, antigen testing and air filtering.
The Government has clearly been too slow to act on boosters, and too quick to hide behind the unwieldy and tardy Niac, the National Immunisation Advisory Council. Niac is an adviser and the Government has always had the power to move ahead of it and act when required. It chooses not to.
The evidence from Israel and elsewhere has been clear from the middle of September that swift action on a widespread booster campaign is the most efficient and durable way to beat back escalating virus numbers, and that immunity wanes in most people faster than thought. The evidence is less obvious among younger people, but a Lancet paper based on Israeli data suggests, even to a layman’s reading, that this is certainly the case in the over-40s.
If the Government had moved on boosters more forcefully in October and November, we might not be in as much danger as we are now. That is a fact. Instead, Ministers hid behind Niac.
In hindsight, the debate around boosters may not have been helped by commentary from senior figures in the World Health Organisation (WHO), including Mike Ryan, the Sligoman running the WHO's pandemic response, and Tedros Adhanom, the WHO's executive director.
Ryan has been correctly praised in the pandemic, especially in Irish media, for the forcefulness of his advocacy for the developing world and the clarity of his public communications. But this near-deference also meant that even when he was clearly wrong, which he appears to have been all along on the need for boosters, his words contributed to a climate of Government hesitancy on them.
Ministers may not have wanted to be seen to defy the global Irishman who has repeatedly suggested that westerners getting boosters are taking “two lifejackets”, while others in the developing world drown. The epicentre of the virus is in Europe. This is where most people are getting sick and the number of infections in Africa, for example, is generally much lower.
Boosters were and are badly needed here, and we should not be guilt-tripped by anybody out of deploying them. The scandalous issue of low vaccination rates in developing nations is entirely separate, and one where the current paucity of global political leadership is most apparent.
Numerous commentators have already noted where the State and Nphet has gone wrong on antigen testing and the lack of promotion of HEPA air filters. Both have been proven to be useful tools, but have been neglected.
It is worth noting that the Restaurants Association of Ireland was calling for a debate on antigen testing a year ago. Ibec has been at it since January. Businesses were ignored then, dismissed as vested interests. Now the State is scrambling to catch up. That is on our leaders, not us.
Decision making in a fast-moving global medical crisis is messy and mistakes are inevitable, understandable and forgivable. But as the storm clouds gather once again, and people lie sick and dying and businesses are dragged closer to the brink, we should ask if everything that could have been done to prevent this scenario was attempted by those with the power to act. It doesn’t seem so.
For now, it is time for society to put shoulders to the wheel once again.