Remember house parties? Everyone agreed they were to blame for the upsurge in coronavirus cases for the last few months. Selfish young people were callously ignoring public health restrictions and attending debauched parties, at which the unwelcome guest of honour was always Covid-19.
The threat from house parties grew so great that politicians felt they had to act. They enacted draconian new legislation last month so that those who organise these drunken soirees could be fined up to €2,500. We haven’t heard much about house parties since that law came into force. That problem has apparently been solved. Except there was never any evidence it was much of a problem at all. And, there is little evidence that gardaí have been enforcing the new law.
Instead of indoor house parties, our focus has now turned to revellers who are gathering to drink take-away pints on city streets. This is despite the fact that young people, meeting in relatively small groups to drink outside, has been a feature of lockdown since the start of this crisis in March.
A viral social media post, which revealed groups carousing in Dublin city centre, caused public outrage at the weekend. Within less than 24 hours, the Government was threatening to outlaw take-away pints – the only remaining business keeping many pubs across the country afloat.
Then predictably, came the backlash to the backlash. Backbench rural TDs criticised plans to make every pub suffer for the sins of a few rogues in Dublin. So, the Government quickly changed tack. Take-away pints would remain legal, but it would outlaw drinking outside for groups of two or more.
Except, there was a glaring inconsistency with that idea.
In Dublin, and other urban areas, bye-laws already exist which prohibit the consumption of alcohol outside. If the consumption of alcohol by groups on city streets is such a driver of the virus, why has there been no effort to curtail it to date by enforcing existing laws?
Now, the Government has quietly shelved all of its various schemes to deal with the threat of take-away pints. That’s what happens when you have a Government whose policy platform is wildly reactive to social media posts. Plans are characterised by a decided lack of nuance and tend to fall apart quite quickly.
The notion that there is a dedicated group of heartless saboteurs who are desperately trying to undermine our efforts to tackle coronavirus is a soothing one for many of us. It allows us to blame others for the renewed surge in cases and makes it easier to dismiss our own minor breaches of the guidelines as inconsequential and blameless.
Groups drinking pints outside got all the attention for the past few days, but the truth is that gathering outside is far safer than being indoors.
Should large numbers of people be doing it during a Level 5 lockdown? No. Is it the main reason the number of cases is beginning to rise? Also no.
The reality is more mundane. Cases are increasing again because there are many small outbreaks occurring all over the country. These are happening when families visit each other’s homes to share an innocuous cup of tea and a chat, when children’s birthday parties are celebrated by extended families, and when friends and loved ones gather together to bury their dead. In normal times, there would be nothing blameworthy about this perfectly normal behaviour at all.
Even now, in the midst of a pandemic, it is not as outwardly objectionable as people disregarding rules to meet their friends to drink a couple of pints. Nonetheless, it is responsible for the spread of Covid-19. The virus doesn’t care if you are meeting inside to drink tea or wine. It will use any social contact, with people from different households, to facilitate its own transmission.
If adherence to the Level 5 restrictions was as widespread as is being claimed, why have traffic volumes barely been dented in recent weeks?
In fact, a traffic survey by Transport Infrastructure Ireland last Friday found traffic volumes had increased in the past week by up to 10pc in areas like the N3 north of Belturbet in Cavan, the N6 in Galway, the N7 at Citywest, and the M1 at the border between Louth and South Armagh. None of us are supposed to be travelling more than 5km from our homes. So, where is everyone going – and are those journeys really necessary?
How many of us are continuing to travel to work when we could be working from home? How many employers have failed to facilitate employees who would prefer to work from home? How many employers are still refusing to pay sick pay, meaning staff with Covid symptoms are turning up to work for fear of being left penniless?
It is easy to condemn those breaches of Covid-19 restrictions which happen in public view. Teenagers falling out of house parties or young people drinking with their friends on city streets. However, by creating easy whipping boys to blame for the spread of the virus, we risk lulling ourselves into a false sense of security and persisting with our own banal breaches of the guidelines, as we perceive them as entirely blameless.
If we want to celebrate something approximating a normal Christmas this year, the incidence of the virus has to fall significantly. Otherwise, we will be endangering our own friends and family by meeting up – and guaranteeing a devastating third wave in the New Year. Saying as much is not meant to be cruel or unfair. It is a simple statement of fact.
We have run out of villains to blame for the spread of the virus and have just a couple of weeks to change its trajectory. It won’t be achieved by scapegoating take-away pints. It will only be possible if everyone works together and sticks to the rules – even when no one is looking.