Irish government clashes with scientists over national lockdown

Ireland’s government has clashed with top scientific advisers after rejecting their call for a new national lockdown to tackle surging coronavirus infections. 

The request on Sunday night to place the entire country under the most severe restrictions came only three days after public health officials said there was no need for new national measures. 

The weekend move blindsided Micheál Martin’s government, provoking an angry response from ministers. Another comprehensive lockdown would shut large parts of an economy that is still struggling after the spring shutdown in which 600,000 jobs were lost.

After fraught talks with health officials and an emergency cabinet meeting, the prime minister gave a televised speech on Monday night to impose new hospitality sector restrictions that stopped well short of a national lockdown. Police overtime has also been increased to step up enforcement of the current restrictions.

The decision to defy health advice is the first big divergence between the government and health officials since the pandemic began in March. 

“The potential implications of such a move are severe and very different from those we faced earlier this year. It could involve the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, with these concentrated in families and communities which are already facing difficulties,” said Mr Martin. 

But it was Leo Varadkar, deputy premier, who laid bare the acute tension between the government and the national public health emergency team, telling a TV interviewer that the demand to shut the economy was not “thought through” and came without consultation.

“I think what happened the last couple of days wasn’t good for anyone . . . and really wasn’t good for the Irish people, many of whom were worried sick today wondering whether they had a job tomorrow, wondering whether they were shuttering their business for the last time,” said Mr Varadkar. 

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s deputy premier, speaking to the media in March
Leo Varadkar, deputy premier, said that the demand to shut the economy was not ‘thought through’ and came without consultation © Aiden Crawley/EPA-EFE

He accused top health officials of not grasping the implications of the advice they were giving.

“None of them would have to tell somebody that they were losing their job and none of them would have to shutter a business for the last time. And I’m not talking about the economy, I’m talking about something that could have happened to half a million human beings tomorrow.” 

Eoin O’Malley, associate professor of politics at Dublin City University, said it would not have been politically sustainable for the government to close the economy, but added that the rise in infection rates presented risks.

“I think there would have been hell to pay for it. That said, they are taking a huge risk in rejecting their advice because if there is a big escalation in deaths and hospitalisations they will no longer have any cover for their decisions,” he said.

“The [health emergency team] is very narrowly focused and probably the government is trying to think more broadly about society and the economy and the other impacts.” 

In a letter to the government on Sunday night, health officials cited a “significant and concerning” rise in cases, adding that the “only opportunity” to assert control over the situation and keep schools open was to impose immediately the maximum level of restrictions. 

However, a senior government official said the push to “go nuclear” had not been anticipated within the three-party coalition. 

Talks on the budget plan for 2021, to be unveiled next week, are predicated on the economy staying open to the greatest extent possible as Dublin confronts both the pandemic and the risk of a no-deal Brexit at the end of the UK transition period on December 31.

In a new forecast on Tuesday, the Central Bank of Ireland said economic activity will “recover slowly from its earlier lows” if pandemic restrictions remain targeted and less severe than in the spring. Unemployment is forecast to average 15.1 per cent this year, dropping to 8 per cent in 2021 and 7.5 per cent in 2020 but still higher than 5 per cent pre-crisis.

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