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Public must be kept onside in fight against coronavirus

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Back in January 2005, then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern led a huge trade mission to China, at a time when phenomenal public works were being undertaken there. New Chinese highways, rail links and veritable new cities were being created in a matter of months as that massive country went on a development binge.

Inevitably, Mr Ahern was asked why Ireland could not emulate some of this speed in infrastructure building. He replied wryly that China did not have Ireland's system of planning permissions and then he went on to one of his favourite themes - the need to streamline planning in Ireland.

The story comes to mind today amid tentative reports that China's coronavirus crisis might be in the process of levelling out. Such news prompts some reflection on the Chinese authoritarian approach to controls on disease outbreaks.

That kind of reflection compounds calls for more radical actions like cancelling major Irish sporting and social events - maybe even including next week's St Patrick's Day festivities. The jury is still out on many of these issues. Few of us want such bans - unless they are seen to be necessary and helpful.

The simple reality about all of these decisions still in the balance is that, as things change from day to day, not even the greatest of experts can make pronouncements with any kind of certainty. We note that this day three weeks ago, Italy was just being forced to face a huge crisis which suddenly appeared to mushroom out of a few small instances.

Now, per head of population, Italy has a coronavirus problem proportionately bigger than that of China. Yesterday we learned of computer models suggesting Ireland could soon have a huge nationwide problem with the virus. The authorities tell us they cannot deny such prognostications any more than they can confirm them. Italy now appears to be taking a page from China's playbook, locking down 16 million people, more than a quarter of its population, for nearly a month in efforts to halt the virus spreading. Weddings, museums, shopping malls and even restaurants are all hit by the new restrictions which include lengthy school closures.

Ireland's culture and the custom and practice of our public administration do not easily lend themselves to mass hardline disease control measures. Radical action must also be measured by the public upset these measures cause.

But the health authorities and the caretaker government must realise that the most precious tool in combating coronavirus is public goodwill. To engender and maintain such goodwill clear and honest communication is absolutely vital.

Cultivating public trust is a two-way street in which honest and timely information updates are indispensable. This is not the time for carping or harping back unduly on past communication errors by our health administration.

Most Irish people are fair minded enough to take current events at face value and co-operate with the authorities as best everybody can. But sustaining that requires constant honest information.

Irish Independent