John Dolan: Keeping the pubs shut was a tough call - I fear that if the schools don’t reopen now, this virus has us beat

There was surely a strong case to reopen pubs in some  counties; even on a trial basis of a few weeks, so says John Dolan in his weekly column
John Dolan: Keeping the pubs shut was a tough call - I fear that if the schools don’t reopen now, this virus has us beat
Picture: Julien Behal

FLATTEN the curve, they said. Ease the pressure on our hospitals, they said.
That was way back in March when this country first went into lockdown to try to prevent the first wave of Covid-19 deaths.

And the vast majority of people, me included, agreed that the lockdown was necessary for that very reason. Plus, we didn’t know what we were dealing with, there was an air of the unknown, which was frightening in itself.

It was a tumultuous time, as children were sent home from school, businesses closed, workers tried to do their jobs remotely, and our health service braced itself for carnage.

We glanced across at the disasters unfolding in Italy and Spain, and feared the worst. We looked left and right and saw the first rumblings of how the virus would feed on the complacency of some leaders who were in denial.

So, lockdown was an easy thing to support in March, and to continue supporting as the months ensued. Both head and heart agreed.

Now, I — and I suspect many others across the land — am not so sure. Tuesday, for many, was the day when head and heart seemed to go their separate ways.

The refusal to reopen pubs, and the insistence that crowds be limited to 200 for outdoor events — many sporting organisations including the GAA wanted that increased to 500 — was hailed as a tough call.

But it was a call that had been widely signalled beforehand, as the number of positive cases rose.

In fact, in many ways, it was an easy call, a safe call, an obvious call — our politicians have followed the public heath advice closely since day one.

But, for many, it was a wrong call. A misstep. Although I fully understand the fears around the rising number of cases, I feel inclined to agree with the growing number of dissenters.

There was a strong argument that they should have reopened some of the pubs — but not nightclubs — when originally planned under Phase 4 a few weeks ago.

Not to do so belatedly on Tuesday surely means that there is a strong probability they will not reopen again this year — maybe the best the publicans can hope for is next spring. Indeed, Taoiseach Micheál Martin admitted as much — although he did say the pub ban will be reviewed in three weeks’ time.

I can’t see anything happening in the next three weeks that will alter their safety-first approach, can you?

Many people rushed to praise the decision. It was erring on the side of safety, it was using the head, if not the heart, they said.

But Tuesday, I suspect, marked the day when a large part of the population fell out of kilter with the politicians and health experts.

That very day, Roscommon recorded its 31st day — an entire calendar month — without a single positive case of Covid-19. In Waterford, it had been 20 days; Longford and Wicklow hadn’t had a case in a week. Although Cork county has had the odd case in recent weeks, the virus is all but eliminated from the community.

There was surely a strong case to reopen pubs in some of those high-performing counties; even on a trial basis of a few weeks.

It would have sent out an important message: That we can, and will, return to some semblance of normality. That we can, and will, learn to live with this virus.

Instead, we are now beholden to a plan that commits us to an ultra-safe ethos, beloved of the nannying health zealots among us — many of whom rejoiced that the nation’s fixation with bars would be put on hold for a while longer. Some of them would love to see pubs closed for good.

In fact, you could argue there is even a touch of snobbery in the decision to allow people into pubs when they are paying for a pricey meal, but not to do so when they simply want a pint and to chat to someone a safe distance away.

It says that people with money and gourmet tastes matter, and people who enjoy a simple pint — predominantly male, older and rural folk — don’t.

This regionalised reopening plan is not as radical as some may think. It has been hinted at several times since the crisis began in March.

Indeed, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said this week that he hoped in time that businesses and pubs might be able to reopen in a phased or regional basis. Why not now, Minister? Why kick that beer can down the road?

In fact, if not now, this week, when cases are so low in some areas outside the Pale, then when can such a plan ever be introduced?

There is a large nettle that needs to be grasped here, one that many politicians and public health experts are failing to even see. That is that Covid-19 will be with us for years, possibly several years, maybe forever. And we can’t keep running away from it.

There comes a point, after the grief of the first wave, when acceptance needs to be embraced. To many, Tuesday was that point.

We have to accept that this novel coronavirus will be around in the autumn, in the winter, and next spring, next summer, perhaps for many years after. Unless we impose a total ban on people leaving and entering this island, it will be living among us for years.

All we can do is shield the most vulnerable, heed the advice, and try to resume our normal lives as best we can.

Yet nobody seems to recognise this painful truth.

Yes, science is working on ways to address treatments and on vaccines — but there is every possibility that there will never be one. Our best hope seems to be that, in the medium term, the virus mutates into something weaker, or burns itself out, as appeared to happen with Spanish flu;.

Bear in mind that in March there was optimistic talk of a vaccine within 12-18 months tops. Five months later, that time span remains roughly the same — and that’s assuming one will be found.

So Covid-19 is going nowhere for some time to come. And it’s time we recognised that, and altered our thinking a little.

Making the entire country suffer when the virus is pretty much contained in a few counties seems a misstep.

We are told that the decision on Phase 4 came down to a choice between opening the pubs or the schools. That sounded to me like emotional blackmail.

But, if we follow the logic, then this Government has now made a rod for its backs.

They simply must reopen the schools later this month in an orderly fashion, and they must convince the teachers and unions to do so.

And if they don’t, where do we go from there?

Because, in my eyes, it would then look as if Covid-19 has us frit and bate.

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