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Jennifer O'Connell: Ireland's pandemic compliance is extraordinary

Assuming the public will continue to be compliant is not a strategy

I passed a shop the other day that I assumed was closed under Level 5, since it’s not somewhere you would go to buy milk, fuel or medicine. Darth Vader mugs, yes. Veterinary products, not so much. These days, though, it also sells Hershey’s Syrup, beef jerky and superhero face masks among the collectible action figures. These are technically essential goods, and so it is staying open.

During the pious, curtain-twitching days of the first lockdown, I might have been annoyed by Beef Jerky Guy. But this is Lockdown 2: The One with Loopholes, and he has bills to pay.

The Government breathed a sigh of relief this week when Germany and France embarked on stringent second lockdowns. Ireland launching a pre-emptive strike into lockdown is one thing; going it totally alone would have been more difficult to spin if it turns out to be the wrong decision. Now, the question of how to hold the room through the cold, curfewed days of winter is a problem for Europe collectively.

In Italy, Gucci shops are being looted in Turin and firecrackers thrown at police. Taxi drivers and hospitality workers have taken to the streets of Barcelona. In Germany protesters carrying pink balloons filled Berlin's Alexanderplatz. Here, anti-lockdown groups have scuffled with gardaí, but the loudest protests this week were about whether children's clothes were essential items.


And those are the people the Government should be worried about – not the ones lobbing bottles across Europe’s piazzas. The calm, compliant ones who would like to do the right thing, but don’t necessarily agree with the views of civil servants on what the right thing is. The retailer workers who – unlike those civil servants – are out of a job again. The frustrated business owners, who might be glad of Government supports but would rather have a business to go back to. The bemused parents who need warm pyjamas for their children and are losing patience with a Government which has declared them non-essential.

Surge capacity

In March, when the UK used pandemic fatigue as an excuse to delay implementing restrictions, some scientists publicly doubted whether the concept was real. Now, nobody is arguing about its existence. "The fatigue is real," World Health Organisation chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week. The WHO defines it as "a natural and expected reaction to sustained and unresolved adversity" that "expresses itself as demotivation to engage in protective behaviours" as well as "complacency, alienation and hopelessness".

There are no easy solutions, but assuming the public will continue to be compliant is not a strategy

Humans have a limited surge capacity, the term given to the mental and physical adaptive systems we use to get through acutely stressful situations. Surge capacity in humans is a bit like surge capacity in hospitals. It can help in a crisis, but you need a more sustainable long-term plan.

To avoid fatigue setting in, the WHO says measures should be transparent, fair, consistent and predictable. Messaging needs to be clear and precise.

Ireland’s high levels of compliance to date are extraordinary given that the management of this lockdown could have been designed to foster pandemic fatigue. The Level 5 measures introduced in a panic here were not transparent or consistent. There was no visible logic in the jump from Level 3 straight to Level 5, which is technically more like a Level 3.5, with the promise that, if we behave, we might get back to Level 3 in time for Christmas, only to revert to Level 5 in January or February. It doesn’t seem fair or consistent that hairdressers, last to open up and responsible for three clusters in total, have been rewarded for their efforts with another total closure. Or that non-food retailers, regarded in the North as a low-impact measure with a high economic cost, have been shut here without discussion.

The riskiest moment in any crisis is the one we’re now facing: the point at which people start to add up the cost of what they’re being asked to sacrifice, weigh it against the risks of not complying, and decide to take their chances.

Tired messaging

There are no easy solutions, but assuming the public will continue to be compliant is not a strategy. Adherence improves where people feel those in charge also know what they need to do, and are doing it. And yet, here we are, seven months on, with the same tired messaging and patched-together strategy that we cooked up at the start. Communication has been inexplicably muddy, especially around people who are waiting for test results for themselves or a family member. Why the oblique “restrict your movements”, instead of the unambiguous “stay at home”? Why “self-isolate” rather than just “stay in your room”? The Government’s new radio ads telling people to “reach out” to a friend, “get creative” or “get out in nature” might seem less patronising if they hadn’t also just banned all visitors and told us to stay within 5km of our own front door.

In a normal winter, the most visible manifestation of the problems in our health service are the trolleys lined along hospital corridors. This winter, it is the cracks in our testing and contact tracing systems. We’ve been told that our testing rates are among the best in Europe. Yet in October, the median time for the completion of testing and tracing in the community stretched to 4.1 days. It doesn’t matter how many tests we’re doing if contact tracers can’t get to people in time to stop individual cases developing into clusters.

The real threat to unity isn’t the anti-mask protesters, it is the parents considering whether they can afford to stay home from work again because their child has yet another cough. It’s Beef Jerky Guy the Government should be worried about – not because of the public health threat he poses, but because of the quietly recalcitrant constituency he represents.