No minister in the history of the State has been as powerful as Stephen Donnelly is right now. Not only does he hold the nation’s health in his hands, but also the fate of the economy – because our economic recovery is entirely dependent on our ability to crush Covid.
Why then – given all of the power he wields, the unlimited financial resources he has at his disposal and the advice of countless experts and consultants – does the minister appear so clueless about our next steps?
Is there a plan beyond March 5, when the current lockdown is due to end? If there is, Donnelly wasn’t prepared to reveal it when he was repeatedly asked yesterday on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland. Evidently, it is “too early to speculate on what will happen in March” and “we will have to be led by public health advice at that point”, he said.
In this iteration of the “plan”, if you could call it that, the minister is a mere bystander, patiently waiting for an aberrant public to do the work. If we stay at home, wash our hands and keep our businesses closed, we will be rewarded by the Government deigning to reveal the next stage of the plan in March. Until then, it’s all up to you. Any failure is yours and yours alone. Success, meanwhile, is impossible to gauge – as we don’t know what it will look like.
But, it’s hard to stick to a plan if there is no specific goal. In behavioural psychology, goal setting is deemed an essential component of self-motivation and self-determination. There’s even an acronym to help fashion useful goals. They should be SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. Where is the evidence of SMART goals in the minister’s plans? We have been told to keep the heads down and endure until March 5 when parts of the economy may, or may not, open up. We do not know by how much the incidence of the disease has to decrease to allow that to happen, we do not know at what level it will be deemed safe to move from Level 5 to Level 4 of the restrictions and we do not know how long it is projected to take to get there.
We know, currently, precisely nothing. Or, do we? Speaking at the Nphet briefing on Monday evening, Tony Holohan was pretty sure that we could write off summer holidays abroad.
“I don’t think we are heading for a summer where millions of people from this part of the world can be heading to beaches that are other than in their own localities,” he said. Having dashed any slim hope of any reprieve from this island for the foreseeable, does anyone in Government think it would be useful to inject some element of hope into their Covid planning? Some crumb of positivity?
Holohan’s announcement managed to cause further anxiety. Few people expected to be swanning off to Ibiza this summer, but now the spectre of only being allowed to visit beaches in our own localities has been raised, meaning you may have to forget about that staycation you had planned outside your own county.
Raining body blow after body blow on a public that is already struggling to cope with the unrelenting horror of this pandemic is an odd way to rally the troops, but that’s all the Government appears capable of doing. Most of us have already been beaten into submission. Now we’re being beaten into an emotional pulp.
We know, with great precision, what we can’t do – everything we’d like to. However, we have no idea what we are working towards and what the ultimate reward will be. Is Level 3 and dining outside at restaurants the most that is on offer, even if we manage to crush Covid to single-digit figures? Will we be able to visit our families in different counties or holiday around the country during the summer? Will we have to wait for a majority of the population to be vaccinated before anything opens up? Does anyone in Government even know?
Perhaps the minister’s plans are vague for a reason. Having over-promised and underdelivered for so long, he has now devised a cunning strategy. Promise nothing. Do that and no one can accuse you of failure. While this may work for the minister, it won’t work for the rest of us. The past year has been a desolate wasteland that has sucked vigour, spontaneity and joy from our lives. Those who have lost loved ones are enduring appalling grief and loneliness. Those who have lost their businesses and jobs are under huge financial pressure. So many of us are struggling, on the brink of despair.
At the very least we need to know that someone is in charge. That there is a plan we are working towards and a specific goal which can be realised at a specific time. This is why the idea of Zero Covid is so attractive. We know it will entail pain and will be difficult to achieve, but there is a huge reward if we work together and defeat the virus – a return to normality.
Zero Covid also doesn’t foist responsibility for success and failure solely on to the shoulders of the public. It requires the Government to introduce comprehensive border controls and mandatory quarantine. It also necessitates funding of our beleaguered public health teams, which are too depleted currently to properly track and trace Covid.
For instance, the public health team in the South East region was increased from just 19 to 100 during the first wave in April. Those numbers were allowed to drop to 25 in July and have now crept up, but only to 50. So, they had a team of 100 to track and trace 1,000 cases during the first wave and just 50 to investigate 14,000 cases in the past three months. No amount of hand washing or social distancing by the public will be enough to compensate for these kinds of glaring deficiencies in our public health teams.
There are things that are not in the control of the minister, vaccine supply chief among them. But this is not an excuse to outsource responsibility for any overarching strategy to the public and Nphet. We need a plan. What is it?