A full house, around 50,000 people, was expected to attend yesterday’s rugby game at the Aviva stadium in Dublin, and would have been permitted under the Covid rules.
But the organisers, Leinster rugby club, failed to shift tickets as they had hoped, and the missing thousands opted for the sofa.
On Wednesday evening Bayern Munich played Barcelona in the 68,000 capacity Allianz Arena in the Bavarian capital, but no spectators at all were admitted.
The rising Covid figures had begun to worry German authorities several weeks ago, before the threat from the Omicron variant had emerged, and severe public health restrictions were re-imposed. On Thursday the Bundestag voted for compulsory vaccination in Germany’s health service and other public employments from March 2022 onwards.
Around western Europe, despite extensive vaccination uptake, rising infection figures have triggered a stronger and earlier response than in either the UK or Ireland.
In the UK, epidemiologists outside the government have been vocal in their criticism of Boris Johnson’s policy.
Writing in The Guardian on Tuesday last, Gabriel Scally of the University of Bristol argued that the UK strategy since summer has relied essentially on vaccination, to the neglect of collective public health measures such as mask requirements, indoor ventilation and contact tracing.
He insisted that the efficacy of these measures, scientifically established, is additional to the benefits of vaccination (which are not enough on its own) and added that public health measures were relaxed too hastily.
The same criticism has been voiced in this country, where high vaccination uptake has been offset by the progressive dilution of non-pharmaceutical interventions.
Infection rates in Ireland were rising in October when the Government implemented a substantial relaxation of public health measures, including the reopening of nightclubs.
Some of these relaxations have now been reversed in a replay of the stop-go pattern which preceded Christmas a year ago.
It is striking that the infection rate in Ireland, relative to population, is higher even than the UK rate and substantially higher than in Germany, where there are early indications of a decline.
There are widespread expectations that further lockdowns may prove necessary with the arrival of Omicron. No responsible government will contemplate their hospitals turning away emergency patients, and an Omicron surge — if it increases transmission — could fill up the hospitals, even if it causes infection no more severe than the current wave.
The unpredictability of infection rates and the pattern of stop-go have been features of the response across Europe, and governments have acknowledged the precautionary principle without always acting accordingly.
Ireland’s public health advisers have, to their credit, admitted the extreme difficulty in predicting the course of infection and hospitalisation. But they also supported the recent premature relaxation of measures, when their own expressed uncertainty might have indicated otherwise.
The pressure to relax in September and October was intense and based on the distress and economic cost imposed on the sectors most exposed, especially hospitality and travel. Print and broadcast media offered daily reinforcement, with constant exposure for bar, restaurant, and nightclub owners demanding a ‘safe’ reopening.
The Government conceded, as they had done in the autumn of 2020, resulting a few weeks later in further distress for the exposed sectors.
The spokespersons have two scripts: “The disease is under control, we can reopen safely”, followed by “we demand compensation for the cancelled reopening". Rinse and repeat.
That mistakes have been made by governments and their advisers is entirely understandable. There should be understanding too for their desire to retain authority by avoiding blame allocation within the policy apparatus, which would undermine public confidence.
But the repetition of mistakes will feature whenever the post-Covid public inquiries get underway.
The trade associations representing the affected sectors have questions to answer. Was it wise, or even fair to the public, to proclaim without evidence that reopening was safe?
Was it even prudent from a narrow commercial perspective, given the experience a year earlier? Operators in the affected sectors have incurred avoidable costs from stock losses and some must feel that a few weeks of business was not worth it.
Politicians must now regret that they paid too much attention, second time round, to the more vocal lobby groups.
They have repaid the policymakers’ indulgence with demands for extended Exchequer support, accompanied by expressions of understanding for the reversal of measures they promoted a month or two earlier.
In the early months of the pandemic, through the spring and summer of 2020, there was a flurry of papers from certain economists, arguing that governments could choose and deliver a course which simultaneously controlled the virus and minimised economic cost.
They argued there was an identifiable trade-off, an optimal policy mix and the correct buttons could be pushed. This has proved an illusion, not least because of the emergence of virus variants.
It is now clear that suppressing the virus through sound public health policies is also best for economic recovery — a conclusion endorsed by a recent review by the IMF of worldwide experience.
Across Europe there is evidence that the public health failures are already stalling the recovery which had gathered pace through summer and autumn.
Whether or not there will have to be further restrictions from government is less important for economic activity than it might appear.
As the reduced attendance at the Aviva yesterday attests, the public will adjust its own behaviour in the face of rising infection fears, and has already been doing so. Travel bookings are being deferred, and hospitality venues unaffected by reimposed restrictions are reporting cancellations.
The course of the pandemic has been unpredictable from the start and stop-start policies have added to economic volatility and cost.