Let’s sum up the seriousness of our circumstances. First, we are enduring the worst wave of Covid infection — in terms of numbers — since the beginning of the pandemic.
This BA.2 variant is far more contagious than any before it.
The surge is so strong that the State can no longer collect reliable statistics.
The hospitals have filled with Covid patients. They have to be isolated and treated so they don’t spread the disease even further. This affects the treatment of other illnesses. In 2021, for instance, there was a 20pc drop in cancer surgeries, radiation oncology down 15pc and chemo down 5pc.
And the hospitals, as we knew before this emergency began — as we’ve known for a generation — are routinely stretched beyond reason, even without Covid. The trolley population is worse than ever.
This is the first Covid surge where the politicians have been in charge. In all other circumstances, they had to take into account the views of scientists and specialists.
Now, the politicians are flying solo — with no one to give them advice except perhaps their mates in the hospitality sector.
The good news is that the vaccines are holding up — they don’t prevent Covid infection, but they still stop people getting seriously ill or dying — so the Covid death toll is lower than in previous waves.
Even that level of protection, though, won’t last forever. Already the effectiveness of the vaccines is reduced for many.
The hospitals, and those who staff them, have been taking a beating from this variant.
Our public health system is fit for our needs — but only as long as not too many of us get sick at the same time; only as long as not too many of us get seriously ill; and as long as we’re willing to put up with a waiting list of months or years.
Dr Fergal Hickey, president of the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine, said last week: “We have patients arriving in larger and larger numbers and we have fewer and fewer staff to deal with them. That is the reality, the elastic band has broken at this stage.”
Already, we’re getting desperate signals from inside the hospitals — medics are exhausted, demoralised. More than 6,000 of them are out sick with Covid, increasing the workload on those still working.
With exquisite timing, in February the Government threw away every last tool of mitigation — all the restrictions that had worked so well in previous waves — just as the seriousness of this wave became unmistakable. To cap it all, the legal basis for much of the most effective mitigation ran out of date last week, and the Government decided not to renew it.
If there’s a sudden, drastic turn for the worse and we urgently need protections, we’ll have to wait while the Oireachtas, with its usual breathtaking speed, provides the necessary laws.
Meanwhile, Nphet has been sent packing. The politicians are wholly in charge, calling the shots, no restraints on their freedom.
There was to be a new, smaller version of Nphet, but ah, sure, what’s the hurry. They haven’t got around to putting it together.
Stephen Donnelly, the Health Minister, is in charge of that. He, apparently, has opinions on how the new Nphet should look, who should be on it and, well, you know our Stephen and his opinions...
So, no scientific advice — and the protections thrown away.
On February 18, the Irish Mirror headline said the “End of Covid-19 pandemic in Ireland” had been signalled by the Health Minister. The subhead told us that Nphet “will now go back to the day jobs”.
No one in Government had used the words “end of Covid-19”, but that headline was a fair summing-up of the atmosphere those in charge created. It was all over bar the cheering, the spoilsport nerds of Nphet were off the pitch.
Freedom had arrived, there was a bit of tidying up to be done, but we had finally slain the Covid dragon.
Those medics and others who cautioned that this wasn’t over were mere worrywarts, pandemic addicts who couldn’t kick the habit.
Go forth and have a ball, folks.
And — naturally — so many of us wanted it to be over, needed it to be over, longed so much for a few months of normality, we wanted the politicians to be right.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation represents our nurses. The Irish Association for Emergency Medicine represents doctors working in emergency departments. Last Thursday they released a joint statement, calling for help.
“Hospitals are overwhelmed and staff need real assistance... Over 10,000 patients have been without a bed since the mask mandate was lifted...
“Hospitals are currently not safe for patients or for staff because of the level of overcrowding and Covid infection levels...
“The public need to be made aware of why we need them to once again step up to the plate in order to protect those who are working on our frontlines...
“Wearing masks and working from home will assist, they will not stop the spread, but have and will reduce intensity of infection and reduce cross-infection. Mandating these measures is now a matter of urgency.”
Here’s where it gets bizarre.
Here’s the Taoiseach: “Suggesting that if we just brought in masks it would change all that doesn’t cut it.”
Now, no one suggested that a mask mandate would stop the variant’s spread. It would mitigate the damage, reduce the number of infections, slow down the spread.
The Taoiseach argued against something no one proposed. He pointed out that the official “advice” was to wear masks. Here’s an example, from the Department of Health, of the strength of the “advice” they were giving: “Anyone who wishes to wear a mask should not be discouraged from doing so.”
But, it gets even more odd.
Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane had spoken to Stephen Donnelly and reported what the minister said. “He said the advice would be that the only way, if you were to look at trying to suppress the disease because of its transmissibility, you would have to go for a full level five lockdown and there is no justification for it.”
Now, that would appear to be the case. The level of death from the BA.2 variant does not appear to justify a level five lockdown.
Again, this is deceptive. No one suggested suppressing the disease. The medics were pleading for mitigation measures. Masking on public transport, for instance, would result in fewer infections, easing the pressure on the hospitals.
The Government is making this a choice of “level five lockdown or nothing”. Which is childish.
Mitigating — not suppressing — the disease, relieves stress on the hospitals. Mitigating the disease reduces the impact of Covid on those deprived of treatment for other illnesses.
Mitigating the disease means fewer people suffering from the often harsh effects of Covid.
Mitigating the disease means fewer long Covid cases in the future — a disease that will have heavy personal, medical and economic effects through the years to come.
Find a chart of Covid deaths in Ireland. It will have three peaks: in the spring of 2020, that first wave, in the winter of 2020, and in 2022.
There would, in any circumstances, have been a high number of deaths in the peak death period of winter 2020. But the number was higher still because that was the time when the politicians — anxious to give the hospitality trade a boost — chose to discard the advice of the nerds of Nphet, and to give us a meaningful Christmas. The results were disastrous.
We are currently in circumstances in which the same people have sole control of our response to Covid — without even the scientific advice they’d be free to ignore.
Flying solo, flying blind.