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Government’s Reopening Strategy A Tragic Farce

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Yesterday’s announcement that the government’s reopening plans have been scuppered by the threat of the Delta variant has left the hospitality industry reeling at the prospect of another lost summer.

The government decision to delay indoor dining until there is a workable plan for customers to prove that they have been vaccinated suggests a strategy in total disarray.

Floating a proposal that vaccination certificates might be used for domestic purposes is clearly problematic in a country where less than half the population has gotten the jab.

The Plan is No Plan

But the timing of it – out of the blue, and in direct contradiction of assurances given two days ago by transport minister Eamon Ryan that vaccination certs would not be used as a “condition for everyday life” – beggars belief. It also beckons the question: are they making it up as they go along?

The pandemic requires that governments exercise a certain amount of flexibility in response to a constantly changing situation. And so it is with the threat of the Delta variant, which casts a shadow over all of Europe’s recovery.

But informed caution is one thing: health minister Stephen Donnelly suggesting that denying entry to unvaccinated people into indoor spaces staffed by other unvaccinated people is the “medical view” is something else entirely. It is a farce that no logic can explain.

So this is a government who is exercising extreme caution on the one hand, but on the other hand is saying that young people must wait patiently for their vaccine while working in spaces they’re not allowed socialise in?

Independent Scrutiny

The government says its decision not to reopen indoor hospitality is due to Nphet’s “stark” modeling forecasts. Nphet presented five scenarios, we are told: the most pessimistic imagine over 680,000 new cases by the end of September, nearly 13,000 hospitalisations and over 2,000 deaths.

This is also the body that in March predicted that a moderate increase in close contacts would result in nearly 10,000 new cases…a day.

Which didn’t happen.

Nphet is tasked with watching over the nation’s public health, but in a pandemic that also means the nation’s economic, social and mental health too. So anything it says and any predictions it makes become singularly important.

So why are their predictions and modelling not subject to any kind of independent scrutiny? Surely when it comes to something so important – so vital to the future welfare of the entire country – a system of independent scrutiny needs to be put in place?

Hospitality Rage

The hospitality industry has responded to the government’s about turn with understandable rage. Most of them echo Labour leader’s Alan Kelly, who described the whole thing as “amateur hour.”

The hospitality industry now has to confront two major dilemmas. The first is the loss of a second summer of much-needed business. For many, this will prove to be one summer too many, as not every restaurant or pub can lean on outdoor dining and even many of those that can cannot generate enough revenue from the limited outdoor space they have to cover their costs.

The second issue is one of costs already dispersed: as the industry prepared for the return of indoor hospitality on 5 July, restaurateurs and vintners up and down the country hired staff and ordered stock to be ready for next week. Who will compensate them for expenditures they could ill afford in the first place?

Ireland Knows Better?

Meanwhile, the rest of Europe moves steadily toward reopening. Indoor dining has partially reopened in most of Europe over the last few weeks, in most cases with a range of restrictions that are designed to keep places open while controlling the possible spread of the virus.

Ireland, which has endured one of the longest lockdowns in Europe, is now committing to one of the slowest reopenings.

The government is gambling that the spread of the Delta variant will force other countries to pull the brake at some point in the coming months, but it is gambling with thousands of businesses and the livelihoods of tens of thousands who have spent the last 15 months scrambling to survive.

Antigen Tests

In Denmark and other countries, antigen tests are required to go to restaurants or bars. In Germany, antigen tests are required to play organised sport. The tests are administered quickly and efficiently.

But not in Ireland. Because antigen tests aren’t as reliable as PCR tests, it’s better to have none at all – and let’s blithely ignore their use across Europe while we’re at it.

No News Isn’t Good News

Nobody is suggesting that the government’s task is easy. But pulling the brake on a reopening days before it was meant to happen is deeply frustrating and destructive to an industry that is already on life support.

No government likes to give its constituents bad news, but there is cold comfort in bad news that is part of a broader, coherent strategy.

Yesterday’s farce had all the hallmarks of an Alan Partridge sketch, but compared to an unplanned, ill-considered and possibly illegal vaccine pass for domestic use, even the idea of monkeys playing tennis just makes more sense.

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