The Government has been on a tightrope throughout the entirety of this pandemic, but it has never been as tight as it is now.
Ministers are scarred after last year’s Christmas free-for-all saw hospitals and contact tracers overwhelmed, with countless lives lost.
Curiously, the country finds itself in a similar position to this time last year, with cases climbing and hospital capacity buckling at the seams.
The biggest difference is that over 93pc of the adult population is fully vaccinated and protected from serious Covid-19 illness.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has admitted if it wasn’t for the vaccines we would be in lockdown.
While previously vaccines were depicted as the holy grail, the be-all and end-all to the pandemic and lockdowns, it is clear this is not the case.
Messaging from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) has changed this week as Dr Tony Holohan admitted vaccination alone, even at exceptionally high rates like ours, is not enough to completely get rid of Covid passes or mask wearing.
This was made clear when Nphet advised the Government that mask wearing on public transport, in shops and hospitals, should remain until February. It is not at all unreasonable to expect they may remain past that date.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has openly admitted Covid will probably be here “forever” and now it seems mask wearing and precautions such as physical distancing or Covid passes will be too.
Speaking yesterday, the Taoiseach said a culture of self-testing using rapid antigen tests needed to be developed.
It’s a good message – but it’s one that is about 12 months too late.
Certain sectors, including aviation, have been crying out for antigen tests to be rolled out for months now. The Government currently has about two million of the tests sitting idle, which could be key in detecting asymptomatic cases.
Only yesterday did we finally hear from the Tánaiste, who said antigen testing may be given to asymptomatic children who are in school pods with a confirmed case.
Why the delay? Perhaps rapid testing could have been key to keeping schools open when they remained closed.
This heel-dragging, humming and hawing has done the Government no favours. Ministers are still rattled from the events of last Christmas and want to err on the side of caution, mainly to protect lives, but mostly to be seen to be trying to protect lives.
We have been on a tightrope since March 2020, to save lives, protect the vulnerable and keep our health system from collapse. No decision has been easy, but, guided by public health advice, before vaccines came along, decisions were relatively clear: if cases are high, lock down; if they are low, open up.
With Nphet giving unusually vague advice, leaving wriggle room for error, hard decisions had to be made. Those hard decisions have been made as nightclubs have reopened, albeit with an already unpopular ticketing system.
The question now is whether or not they will pay off for the Government, if they have taken too much of a gamble, or too little.
As cases and hospitalisations peak in the coming weeks, ministers will grow anxious. Yes, the vaccine roll-out ended up being a success – eventually – but it alone is not enough. What we do next is what matters most.
And if the gambles taken around the reopening of nightclubs and delayed roll-out of antigen testing pay off, then Christmas will be saved.
If not, health chiefs may have to recommend what nobody in Cabinet has the appetite for – new restrictions for Christmas.
Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland