Whether or not this is the end, it is a watershed moment in this country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Just three weeks ago, the national conversation was one of tightened restrictions, the risk of schools not reopening and a repeat of the grim lockdown of early 2021.
Fortunately, the Omicron threat has come and gone without our hospital system being overwhelmed. This allowed for the effective end of “almost all” Covid-19 restrictions from this weekend. During this three-week period, there has been a marked change in tone from our political leaders.
Whether it’s limiting movement and telling us that getting together on New Year’s Eve was “unsafe” or now having to quickly reopen society for the good of our people – it’s a turnaround.
Watch Leo Varadkar’s comments at a private meeting of his parliamentary party on Tuesday, where he made it clear that now is the time to open up. He pointed to the impact of Covid-19 on young people.
“They haven’t had the rite of passage that’s normal for young adults for about two years now. They’re seeing their friends on Instagram living much more normal lives in London, New York and Dubai, and people find it very difficult,” he said.
“We have seen very strict rules around all of these things for two years now, probably the only country in the world where it has not been possible to stand in a bar for two years or go to your desk. With the exception of about three weeks, it was very difficult to attend a concert, concert, night club or full stadium,” he said.
He followed a lengthy interview with Health Minister Stephen Donnelly where he said he expected a quicker-than-expected reopening, as did Green Party leader Eamon Ryan.
Unlike in the past, when ministers were slow to anticipate advice from Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, this week a clear message was sent within Cabinet.
The political masters were looking to take control of the narrative back from their public health advisers who have been guilty of overhearing at various points in this pandemic. They clearly explained what they wanted to hear.
Some in government, even on the Fine Gael side, have pointed to interventions by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, since the New Year, to explain why things have changed.
They point to Monday, January 3, when Martin held a meeting with Dr. Holohan before the Nphet meeting that week, rather than waiting until after the scheduled Nphet meeting.
These government figures said such a meeting and similar interactions have since allowed Martin to take control of the narrative away from the soap opera of letters to the government after the Nphet meetings.
This week, it was important from a government perspective that it was Martin articulating the message rather than waiting for the letter to leak.
Sources said that with Martin, rather than Donnelly, keeping a much closer eye on Nphet, it was much harder for them to dictate the pace of the conversation.
What is clear is that the tolerance for Nphet’s ultra-cautious approach has run dry within the Cabinet and such comments by ministers and Martin in public are no coincidence. Whereas before we would have had a lot of ministers laughing at Nphet’s behavior, the tone has been much more collegial lately.
This reflects a greater degree of confidence among politicians, not necessarily dismissing Nphet, but certainly forcing the conversation towards a conversation much more grounded in economic and societal reality.
Additional restrictions introduced before Christmas, including the questionable 8 p.m. curfew on hospitality, were introduced as a precaution.
Once Stephen Donnelly said the peak of the Omicron wave had passed, the basis for maintaining restrictions fell immediately.
Now those who have spoken out against the highly conservative nature of the Irish restrictions will say that common sense has finally prevailed and we as a country can step out of the shadow of the virus and start walking again as truly free people. .
To be sure, several ministers expressed pleasant surprise at how quickly the restrictions crumbled. They noted that some voters worry the country is moving too quickly from harsh restrictions to almost full reopening.
Yesterday, some immunocompromised people said that this reopening would force them to return to cocooning. They asked is it right that they be set aside for the greater good?
Although their concern is justified, it is simply not tenable to impose strict restrictions on the 98% in the hope of protecting the remaining 2%. Such worry is also unavoidable, given how many times we have been conditioned to fear over the past two years.
While the end of many restrictions is certainly welcome, it would be extremely unwise to assume this is the end of Covid-19 or the end of Nphet. Ministers have made it clear that moving forward, the Government’s response to future bumps must see restrictions used only as a last resort and not a lazy default.
They insist that the health system must retain the capacity to quickly roll out a new vaccination program if needed, rapidly scale up testing capacity and seek other cures, which means imposing restrictions is only used in exceptional circumstances.
It is clear that we need to improve our capacity in hospital beds, especially in intensive care units, to allow society to continue, to avoid inflicting enormous pain on the masses in order to protect hospitals against overflow.
After 22 months, the patience of a weary public has been tested and the good news of the reopening is a moment to be savored. Although there is an investigation into how the pandemic has been handled, as confirmed by Micheál Martin this week, it is not something that will be done in the spirit of revenge but rather of learning.
Let’s hope this reopening is truly the beginning of the end and not another false dawn.