Last week, in an address to the Fine Gael parliamentary party, Leo Varadkar said the Irish people would demand an exit strategy if the country moved to Level 5. Well, we're here. Where is it?
The plan, outlined by Micheál Martin on Monday, didn't contain one. In fact, it contained an explicit acknowledgement that we are trapped in an endless cycle of lockdowns until a vaccine is found and becomes widely available.
Mr Varadkar's government accelerated the reopening of the economy during the summer, with the result that most businesses, with the exception of wet pubs and nightclubs, reopened on June 29. The only significant announcement the following month was the publication of the Green List of countries on July 20. At the time, Ireland had one of the lowest rates of infections in Europe, with just three cases per 100,000 people.
By August 7, Laois, Offaly and Kildare had been locked down due to outbreaks in meat processing plants and direct provision centres which had been allowed to get out of control. On September 18, Dublin moved to Level 3. Donegal joined it there on September 26, before the rest of the country was elevated to Level 3 on October 6. On October 16, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan moved to Level 4. Tomorrow, the entire country will be at Level 5.
Since the restrictions were eased at the end of June, most counties have enjoyed three months in which life was lived with reduced restrictions. The unlucky ones, Kildare and Dublin, have had barely two months in which most businesses were operating normally and social life returned to something approximating normality. Is this the plan? Two months on and two months off? With the virus never quite at low enough levels to allow vulnerable members of our community feel comfortable socialising or leaving their homes? We have to do better.
Dave Nabarro, a special envoy on Covid-19 for the WHO, recently said lockdowns should not be used as the primary means of controlling the virus. The only time they are justified is to "buy time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance resources and protect health workers".
What is the Government going to do over the next six weeks to reorganise, regroup and rebalance? What health measures will be put in place? What will the test and trace system look like? What is going to happen with travel and testing at airports? What is going to be done with the Border to prevent the virus being imported from Northern Ireland?
We know that during the summer the test and trace system was dismantled with the result that localised outbreaks occurred in Kildare, Laois and Offaly. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the system had been "caught off guard with the speed of it" - an astonishing admission of negligence.
On October 7, Dr Ann Dee, consultant in public health medicine, warned the "regional public health system is as close to collapse as it has been than at any time before". She said that unless the country wanted to live in permanent lockdown, additional resources would have to be provided. The evidence the test-and-trace system is under immense stress is clear from the statistics. The median time now taken for the full test and trace process is 4.1 days. Last month, it was 3.5 days. Neither of these figures are swift enough to prevent a resurgence of the virus.
Since the start of August, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has been promising to introduce random Covid-19 testing at airports. Those tests never materialised. Now, Ryanair has said it will close its bases at Shannon and Cork for the winter and Aer Lingus is threatening to do likewise. On October 12, Mr Donnelly said the Government was considering airport testing as an alternative to quarantine for some incoming travellers - even though quarantine is not currently enforced or even checked.
Is anyone in the Government concerned about restoring confidence in air travel and stopping the importation of the virus? Ministers keep telling us we can't introduce a zero-Covid policy as we can't seal ourselves off from the world. If airlines abandon us and planes stop flying, we will be sealed off. More than seven months into this crisis, can anyone in Government make a decision on testing in airports?
The rates of Covid infection in Northern Ireland are horrifying. Virgin Media's Gavan Reilly crunched the numbers yesterday to reveal that one in every 142 people in the region has tested positive in the past 14 days while that figure rises to one in 57 in the Derry and Strabane area. Given these rates of infection, it is clearly insanity to have an open border on the island with zero checks.
If Dublin people cannot travel to Kildare, why should those in Derry be allowed travel to Donegal? This is a public health crisis and the Government needs to do everything in its power to stop the spread of the virus. If that includes checkpoints at the Border, like those that existed during the foot-and-mouth crisis, then get on with it.
In a speech in early June, Mr Varadkar told the nation "this summer can be a summer of hope". On Monday, Mr Martin said "even as the winter comes in, there is hope". But, there is no hope if all we have to look forward to are permanent lockdowns. The public are sick of platitudes.
Can the Government just do its job and invest in measures that will help us suppress the virus? The Irish people will do the rest.