Unease at reappearance of Nphet bigwigs on the airwaves as changes to freedoms seem likely
It was Wednesday, October 6 when the trajectory of Covid-19 in Ireland began to deteriorate. The test positivity rate was up substantially on the previous week, the downward trend in new cases of the virus reversed. By the Friday, senior public health officials were alerted to this worrying trend and it was reported by Dr Ronan Glynn, the deputy chief medical officer, and Professor Philip Nolan, Nphet’s modelling chief, to a meeting of the Covid Oversight Group last Wednesday.
The Cog, as it is referred to by many in the Government, is the group set up and chaired by Martin Fraser, the secretary-general at the Department of the Taoiseach, to triage information coming from the health system before it gets to the political decision-makers.
One person in the room last week characterised the new developments with the virus as an “unwelcome surprise” being landed on a political system.
Fraser and the other department secretaries-general who sit on the group, including Robert Watt, the top civil servant in Health, left the meeting to brief their political masters, and it was not long before news of the grim picture presented at the meeting was relayed to RTÉ and others.
Ministers Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath may have been delighted their Budget contained no major landmines to ruin their week, but equally they might have hoped that discussion on their package would have stayed in the headlines for at least a few days. Unfortunately for them, no one is talking about the Budget this weekend.
The Covid numbers are not good. Testing rates, test positivity and hospitalisations are all up. On Friday, the number of tests carried out was up 22pc on the same day the previous week. By yesterday, the increase in testing was forecast to be up 30pc on what it was last Saturday. The overall positivity rate in the community is 11pc, but it is as high as 17pc in Kerry and Waterford. Tralee, Cork city, Waterford, Carlow, Louth, Meath and north Dublin are all particularly busy for testing. “Cases are rising in just about all ages at this point,” the HSE’s lead on test and tracing, Niamh O’Beirne, said yesterday.
Senior public health officials are still not entirely clear this weekend whether this is a transient increase and that cases will stabilise at current levels over the coming weeks, or if it is the beginning of a slow but significant wave. One thing that is likely is hospitalisations will increase in the weeks ahead. Already there are 30 hospitalisations per 1,000 cases.
One year on from the coalition’s spectacular falling out with Nphet over a sudden surprise recommendation to move the country into lockdown, some tensions between the public health officials and the politician are also re-emerging.
Prof Nolan’s declaration during a lengthy intervention on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne that leaving the house with Covid symptoms should become “socially unacceptable in the same way that drink-driving has become socially unacceptable” did not go down well.
But it was Dr Glynn’s video message on Friday morning encouraging people to work from home during autumn and winter that caused more trouble.
This appeared to contradict official government guidance on a cautious and phased return to the office that allows workers to attend where necessary or if there is a specific business need. Some ministers noted the irony of Dr Glynn recording the message in his office. “He’s hardly seeing patients up there,” one caustically observed, while another described the remarks as “factually wrong” and assumed they would be corrected. “Government policy has not changed,” a senior government figure said. “He [Glynn] is aware of government policy.”
The Department of Health scrambled to issue a clarification on Friday afternoon, but confused messaging is not ideal heading into tomorrow’s meeting of Nphet, at which Dr Tony Holohan, returning from a period of annual leave, will chair proceedings. Three options will be examined: pausing plans to lift remaining restrictions on October 22 (this Friday); proceeding as planned; or proceeding with lifting some restrictions and retaining the requirement for the vaccine cert to enter venues, including hospitality.
The last is the option being most discussed among ministers and senior government officials this weekend. The legislation underpinning the pass has been extended to January 9 and the possibility of requiring its use is in play. Restaurants and bar lobby groups, while relaxed about retaining the pass, are pushing for an end to social distancing requirements indoors. Such a move would make public health officials nervous. Extension of restaurant and bar opening hours is on the table, as is reopening nightclubs — but limiting it to people with vaccine certs — and allowing larger outdoor events to go ahead.
Ultimately, there is no mood either among Nphet or the Government to go backwards or begin reimposing restrictions. While that can never be ruled out, it has not been a feature of any of the conversations taking place in recent days, nor is it viewed within the Government as likely to be put on the table by Nphet next week.
“The numbers are being assessed twice daily with further analysis on the reasons behind the increase, and the modelling is being looked at,” a senior government figure said. “There is very little left for the 22nd and all will be considered by the Cabinet on Tuesday — Covid certs, nightclubs, extensions and social distancing indoors.”
There may well be a concerted government information campaign to re-emphasise basic public health messaging around mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing as well as reminding people that even if they are fully vaccinated they can contract Covid-19 and spread it.
Booster shots are also likely to form a part of the Government response in the coming weeks, with ministers anxious that the National Immunisation Advisory Committee makes a swift recommendation on administering boosters to healthcare workers and the over-60s.
“If you were a nurse and you were vaccinated in January, I think it’s not unreasonable to hope for a bit of clarity. Look at Israel — they went on a booster programme and it seems to have worked,” a government source said.
But the focus on the 300,000 people who have yet to be vaccinated and the 70,000 who got only one dose has driven a noticeable uptick in registration for vaccination, according to an HSE source. There were close to 3,500 new registrations over a three-day period at the end of last week, including around 250 people aged 16 and 17; 860 aged 18 to 29; just over 700 people in the 30 to 39 age cohort; and 660 people who are over 40. This compares with around 2,000 to 2,500 who visited walk-in vaccine centres last weekend.
There is still evidence of younger people being more reluctant to avail of the vaccine. The number of fully-vaccinated 12- to 15-year-olds stands at 61pc, with 74pc of 16- and 17-year-olds fully-vaccinated and 83pc of 18- to 29-year-olds fully-jabbed. Higher Education Minister Simon Harris, who was noticeably vocal on Covid matters last week as Stephen Donnelly was forced to isolate with symptoms of the disease (he later tested negative), announced plans yesterday to run vaccine centres across 12 higher education sites from tomorrow in a bit to get more students jabbed.
There is a view that the heightened concern about the virus will, as it has throughout the past nearly two years, impact public behaviour and result in people being more cautious in the weeks ahead. But that alone will not do it, and changes to the plans for Ireland’s own Freedom Day — although no one in the Government ever called it that — are now almost certain to happen this week.
Some ministers note with concern the re-emergence of the big Nphet figures across the airwaves in recent days and stress there is a strong desire within the Government to drive on and announce at least some progress on lifting the remaining public health measures.
As one minister put it: “If not the 22nd, then when?”