New worldwide cases of the Covid-19 infection have yet to peak. The situation in Europe is mixed - most countries are reporting declines in both cases and fatalities but there have been several renewed outbreaks, including some in Nordrhein-Westfalen in Germany and around the Portuguese city of Lisbon. Cases and fatalities have been on a falling trend in the Republic and in Northern Ireland. The figures have been comparable in both parts of Ireland and less severe than in England.
At last Friday's press conference, the Department of Health reported that incoming travellers have again become a source of new cases, on the same day that Aer Lingus released a statement urging the new government to ease up on flight restrictions. There is currently a 14-day self-quarantine requirement for incoming passengers but without effective enforcement: crucially there are very few flights, but the airlines are keen to get the peak summer season finally under way. At this time of year, Dublin Airport would expect about 110,000 passengers every day but handled just 46,000 in all of May.
The Government plans to de-restrict through an EU-inspired scheme of 'air bridges' between a selected, but unspecified, group of European countries from July 9. Aer Lingus, most of whose fleet is based at Dublin, had this to say: "The level of success in containing and controlling the spread of Covid-19 in European countries is equivalent to Ireland's success. That is the case now... and it should not take two more weeks to assess this". Clearly this Irish policy decision affects Aer Lingus more than Ryanair, most of whose business is outside Ireland.
It took just a few hours to assess the Aer Lingus statement, which is plain wrong, as was politely pointed out by Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer at the Department of Health, on Friday afternoon. Some European countries have had a better record than Ireland, some worse, in controlling the virus. Two weeks hence, Dr Holohan insisted, the picture could have changed again, and the list selected today would not be the one selected on July 9.
People book holidays in advance and will be put off travelling to destinations like Spain and Italy if they might have to self-quarantine for a fortnight when they return, and the airlines will not want to schedule flights they know will not attract bookings. Inbound visitors will not be too happy either, especially if they expect the rules to be enforced. An online poll conducted by thejournal.ie showed that (excluding undecideds) 63pc of Irish people are scared of foreign travel, a figure which includes Dr Holohan who intends to holiday at home, versus 37pc prepared to risk it, so Aer Lingus is right to be concerned.
So which countries have as good a record as Ireland on today's figures, and might get on the list not requiring the 14-day self-quarantine period? Quite a few, but mostly the wrong ones: probably not Spain and Italy among the destination countries for Irish holidaymakers, and probably not Britain among the source countries for visitors to Ireland. Two winners on the destination list could be Greece and Croatia, while Germany would make the list of source countries. All three have significantly fewer cases and fatalities relative to population than Ireland. Portugal has also done rather well, until the recent setback in Lisbon.
Last Thursday, Professor Paddy Mallon, an infectious diseases expert from University College Dublin, told the Oireachtas Covid committee that he feared a reversal of the recent progress in Ireland should foreign travel take off again. Several other experts have noted that an island which has got the disease under control should consider severe restrictions on foreign travel, citing best-in-class New Zealand: with the same five million population as the Republic, New Zealand has had just 22 deaths from Covid-19, versus over 1,700 here. A better example might be Iceland, which welcomes visitors but tests on arrival (sets you back €100), requires self-isolation for a day in a hotel where the result is delivered, and quarantine is compulsory if the test is positive.
Iceland has had a fatality rate per million population less than one-tenth the rate in Ireland, which in turn is little more than half the rate in Britain, another island. An Icelandic system in Ireland would need to include all airports which are open, including Aldergrove in Belfast, and all ferry ports, including Larne and Belfast as well as Dublin and Rosslare. A common system of infectious disease control at ports across the island is already operated for livestock, so the precedent is available.
There is just one airport that matters in Iceland. Reykjavík handled less than one-quarter of Dublin's passenger volume last year, roughly the size of Aldergrove, so the scale of the problem is far more manageable. Iceland has just one small ferry port. In continental Europe, some countries have more formalised processes than Dublin Airport for arriving passengers, but they all have extensive land borders, and none regards the Reykjavik solution as worthwhile. It would be interesting to know if the Government has considered the Icelandic model - perhaps it is logistically infeasible without a severe restriction on volumes.
If traffic at sea and airports recovers strongly under whatever new arrangements are chosen, the Government's experts, including Professor Philip Nolan of Maynooth who spoke alongside Tony Holohan at Friday's press conference, seem to fear that it could spark a resurgence. In his Friday Irish Times column, the economist John FitzGerald drew attention to the role of consumer behaviour in the recovery process. There has been an element of involuntary saving in all countries, especially amongst better-off people unable to spend on items like travel and entertainment.
But there is also a fear factor, precautionary saving by choice, of which the reluctance to travel evident in the online poll mentioned earlier is an example. If the public fears a second wave of the virus, even if the health system is better able to cope, the weakness of demand will not be amenable to fiscal stimulus.
The supposed trade-off between public health measures and the economy, lives versus livelihoods, does not really exist if economic recovery requires public confidence that the public health policy is working. A second wave of the virus could do more damage than the first, and Micheal Martin's new government faces a crucial decision on air travel in its first days.