A tale of two countries.
Many of us will have spent yesterday looking across the Irish Sea with a tinge of green-eyed envy. In most of England and parts of Wales, they returned to a degree of normality.
Gyms, pubs, hair salons and, oddly enough, zoos are now back on the menu for public consumption.
These services have now been shut for so long in this country that they’re just a fond memory of times gone past.
But for the vast majority of Brits who have been struggling under their lockdown, this was not just a welcome return to normality but a deeply necessary one. A few inevitable quibbles aside, they have beaten the rest of Europe in terms of their vaccine roll-out and they feel they have earned the right to get back to real life.
Of course, yesterday also saw some loosening of the Irish restrictions, which seems to have been welcomed with more a shrug of the shoulders than a mass response of public gratitude. The kids can go back to school, a prospect which seems to delight the parents as much as it horrifies the teachers. Two households can now meet outdoors in a public place.
The hated 5km travel ban, which has been in operation since the last lockdown kicked in on December 30, has now been relaxed to allow people to travel up to 20km within their own country borders.
Even reading that last sentence is a reminder of how weirdly dystopian things had become in the last 13 months. Up until the start of February of last year, the idea of this government, or any other government, having the power to mandate who gets to travel and which sections of the population are allowed to meet would have seemed like the fruits of some paranoid fever-dream about an authoritarian regime seizing the reins of power.
But as we now know, this isn’t some sinister, fascist power-grab (despite what the lunatic fringe may claim to the contrary). It’s just a bunch of politicians who have been left completely out of their depth and are haplessly flailing around.
They’re more concerned with not making thing worse than they are with making things better and, from their perspective, that makes sense. It would be a rare politician, indeed, who doesn’t worry about being accused of having blood on their hands.
But unlike most of the UK, there’s still no sign of when Irish establishments such as gyms, hair salons, pubs and restaurants will be opening their doors. We might know more by the end of this month. Or we might not. The Government might come out with a clear and coherent strategy. Or it might not. Frankly, my blood went cold watching Luke O’Neill on TV the other night when he said it might be September before we can even contemplate such simple pleasures as meeting friends for a beer and a bite to eat.
That’s why we should all keep a close eye on how the British public responds to their new freedoms – because you damn well know that’s what our own public health officials will be doing. If there is a calm and moderate response in the UK, it bolsters the Irish argument that we should be trusted enough to be allowed to get our hair cut.
On the other hand, if the UK public goes bonkers in the first few days and we see a noticeable spike in cases of Covid, then we here on this island might as well kiss the rest of the year goodbye.
While the easing of the travel restrictions will have come as a boon to many people, most of us are, to quote Micheál Martin, simply “fed up with situation”. It’s nice to see political recognition of the growing public anger. But then again, the politicians don’t have much choice – the last few polls have seen support for their response to the pandemic falling off a cliff and dipping below 50pc for the first time since we entered this deeply weird period.
It would be unfair to call the Irish roll-out of the vaccines a damp squib, but it certainly hasn’t been the magic bullet we were promised.
Where once we were promised salvation, we seem to have encountered only controversy and confusion. The numbers receiving the first jab are far lower than was initially forecast and when you throw in the rather horrifying fact that Covid seems to be mutating into different variants on a weekly basis, we’re faced with the prospect of living with Covid for the foreseeable future.
So let’s play a little thought experiment. Let’s imagine that we get everything back to some sort of regularity by the end of this year – what will that ‘new normal’ look like? Will we have to carry a vaccine passport, like some sort of de facto government ID card? Will we still live in a world of Garda checkpoints? Is the era of meeting some friends for a surprise birthday dinner in the local restaurant now gone forever? Will we ever get back to the heady days of 80,000 people cramming into Croke Park to cheer on their team?
One of the interesting things we have all learned in the last 13 months is that many of the things we thought were important weren’t as crucial as we believed. Conversely, many of the things we ignored have now taken on a greater weight.
For instance, I thought I’d miss meeting people in the pub after work. I really miss going to gigs but I honestly can’t envisage a time when I’ll be back in a sweaty and packed Whelans enjoying a band.
Instead, I’m more concerned about seeing my local barber again.
That wasn’t something I ever thought I’d say, but given the fact that I now look like Brian Blessed, I’d be far happier having a short back and sides than sitting down for a beer.
We’ve all had to psychologically adapt to a set of strange and horrible circumstances. Most of us have muddled through while others have struggled greatly.
But I have a hinky feeling that when we do get things back up and running, the landscape will be very, very different to the one we were used to.
The lessons from the UK will certainly be fascinating…