It remains to be seen how quickly the alarming spread of Omicron in Britain is reflected here. Virologists in the UK believe the incidence could be doubling every two days. If this continues, and even if the new variant causes less severe illness, they argue that the capacity of the health system cannot withstand propagation of the disease at this extraordinary rate.
Any process that doubles every two days is explosive. Ultimately, and as a matter of arithmetic, the spread slows down as immunity is acquired the hard way — through infection. Vaccination, the easy way, cannot scale up quickly enough — a linear process always loses against exponential growth. Nor can health system capacity be expanded quickly, and it will diminish as staff absences become widespread.
If Omicron transmission is as rapid as the UK data suggest, the new variant had better convert far fewer of those infected into hospital cases or the system will soon run into capacity constraints. The chart shows the seven-day pattern of new cases in Ireland and the UK since the beginning of the pandemic up to Friday, expressed per million of population.
The series have diverged on occasions due to differences in the public health policies pursued, the pace of vaccination and the intensity of testing. But they have broadly tracked one another — not surprising, given the high travel volumes and the open border with Northern Ireland.
The recent dramatic surge in the UK is not yet fully reflected in the seven-day average, but the trend is nonetheless almost vertical.
In Ireland, the Delta wave was fully under way when the major relaxation of measures was initiated by the Government in October, and the rapid increase saw some measures reversed before the threat from Omicron had materialised. The slowdown recently is clearly seen as transient by the Government’s advisers, the demise of the Delta wave to be followed by an Omicron wave that could exceed all previous experience.
Since vaccination uptake became widespread around western Europe through this year, governments have been reluctant to respond with lockdowns when cases spike, relying instead on exhortation and faith in their vaccination programmes.
For some countries this might have worked against Delta, but the new variant changes everything. It appears to be far more transmissible, at up to four times the rate of its predecessors, according to some early estimates.
Even if it proves to have a lower rate of conversion of cases into hospitalisation, the sheer speed of spread will outsprint the best efforts of the vaccinators and fill up the hospitals.
That is the fear that motivates the public health experts and has led them to recommend extra measures to augment the vaccination drive.
Governments are reluctant to abandon the reliance on vaccination, despite knowing it may not be enough. They are also reluctant to reimpose lockdowns, although some in continental Europe have gone further than either the Irish or UK governments. Both relied on exhorting the public to exercise caution, which was already evident anyway and has induced cancellations in the hospitality and travel sectors.
Governments have been slow to do anything that might look like lockdown, hiding behind a professed desire to protect the economy — or at least the most exposed and vocal sectors. It is at this late stage a disreputable line to pretend that the economy can be protected through measures likely to prove ineffective in supressing the virus.
There is no evidence that letting the virus rip for a while is good for the economy, even for the vocal sectors.
The International Monetary Fund, in a recent study of experience around the world, concluded there is no trade-off between public health measures and economic performance.
Premature relaxation of public health measures makes things worse, says the IMF — and the public can always choose caution, whatever the official willingness to rescue the vocal sectors. Their conclusion is that fixing public health, suppressing the virus, is the route to fixing the economy.
The public, or large parts of it, has already decided government advice to be careful means staying out of poorly-ventilated pubs — whether they close at 5pm as advised by Nphet or at 8pm as favoured by Fianna Fáil senators and publicans.
If Nphet, or the senators, have any evidence that the microbes are not just nocturnal but have predictable clock-on times, they should share the science with the professional journals on virology and epidemiology. Closing nightclubs at midnight was an earlier recommendation for which the evidential basis has shamefully been kept secret from the worldwide policy community, hungry for hints about how to deal with the virus.
The full cost of evidence-free policy includes public cynicism and unwillingness to follow the advice that makes sense. Tricking around with pub opening hours is not serious. The public senses this, and the lack of seriousness devalues guidance on things that matter.
The economic recovery around Europe is already faltering in the face of restrictions imposed in recent weeks to contain rising cases of Delta, on to which the Omicron wave has been superimposed.
Recent improvement in Irish government revenue is fragile, and the major central banks have begun to tighten monetary policy. The US central bank, the Federal Reserve, looks like it will cease buying government bonds soon and may also start raising interest rates. The Bank of England has already done so, and the European Central Bank has announced a plan to scale back support for government bond markets, including ours.
It would be foolish to expect the easy money regime to survive indefinitely. If things get back to normal once the pandemic is finally under control, normal includes proper oversight of public spending and a return to balanced budgets.