Why should the whole nation suffer? Ease Covid restrictions in counties like Cork NOW

Using a national lockdown as a sledgehammer — when swathes of Cork are free of Covid — is nuts, argues JOHN DOLAN
Why should the whole nation suffer? Ease Covid restrictions in counties like Cork NOW

REGIONAL SOLUTION: More and more experts and countries are backing the introduction of ‘green zones’, areas where Covid restrictions could be eased, and gardaí would prevent people from red zones from entering

AT around 6pm tonight, I’ll do what I’ve been doing practically every evening now for over a year.

I’ll pick up my phone and scroll down till I find the new daily number of Covid cases.

Then, as religiously as the Angelus, I’ll roll my eyes to the heavens and wonder why the hell the figures are so stubbornly high, when my family and I and every other person I know is living the life of a medieval hermit monk.

I’ve stopped watching the daily tally being announced on the RTÉ news as, almost without fail, George Lee will pop up to sombrely parrot the latest line from Nphet.

When the figures rise, George adopts an end-of-the-world-is-nigh tone. And when the figures fall, he still adopts an end-of-the-world-is-nigh tone...

Perhaps, like our public health officials, he doesn’t trust us not to celebrate a minor victory against Covid by throwing a street party, getting pie-eyed, and dancing a conga to the newly-opened pub, kissing and hugging random strangers along the way.

The announcement of last Sunday’s case numbers was the biggest blow so far: 769. I’ve never known such despondency around social media afterwards. Will Ireland’s national, one-size-fits-all lockdown — one of the most stringent and long-lasting in the world — ever end?

Only when you drilled down into the figures did a rather different story emerge, offering a glimmer of hope to large areas of the country.

The number of cases in my region, the Macroom local electoral area, has been at zero for weeks. The number of cases in Cork has stayed around the 20 mark — in a population of well over half a million people. We proudly remain one of the best-performing counties in Ireland.

Such statistics merely served to emphasise the fact the government are content to use the sledgehammer of a nationwide lockdown until Dublin and the border counties crush the virus. The likelihood of that happening any time soon, even with a hopefully ramped-up vaccination programme, seems remote.

The Taoiseach simply MUST look at the option of a regional easing of lockdown, for the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing of perhaps a million or more of his people.

I first mentioned this approach on this page three weeks ago, and since then I am happy to say the clamour has grown louder. Is Micheál Martin willing to listen?

A precedent was set last August when restrictions were brought in for three counties — Kildare, Laois and Offaly — after a worrying spike in cases. The Taoiseach said then that the “process of reopening is not simple. It is not a case of moving forward step by step”.

The same logic surely should apply on a county by county basis to the easing of restrictions now, I wrote on March 6. That view has since received backing from many quarters.

This week, Professor Aoife McLysaght, of the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group on Covid, spoke out, saying remote counties like Cork and Kerry should not have to wait until Dublin has Covid under control before they’re allowed to reopen.

Ms McLysaght, Professor of Genetics at Trinity College Dublin, said public patience with the nationwide lockdown is running out and the Government must “urgently adopt a regional approach”, adding: “If there’s no Covid in communities, they should be allowed to reopen.”

Three weeks ago, I suggested reopening all schools in low-Covid counties such as Cork, and extending the 5km restrictions to the whole of the county. I feared opening businesses would lead to an influx of people from counties where Covid cases are high.

However, Professor McLysaght insisted that areas with low cases should be allowed to open up their businesses too, including shops, hairdressers, and even pubs with outdoor hospitality.

She had a plan to prevent invaders from other counties: The creation of ‘green zones’.

“The key to making this work is to control entry into these areas. You can’t allow daytrippers in, it has to be residents only. Garda roadblocks could be erected around ‘green zones’,” argued Professor Aoife McLysaght. “The Government has said reopening is about data, not dates, if that’s really the case, they should act on the data.”

As the Professor pointed out, the Government seem determined “to keep us in a holding pattern until we’re all vaccinated”. But people are getting restless, she said, and starting to move about, and that’s why case numbers are still high.

There are two things mitigating against the creation of such ‘green zones’, where a semblance of normal life could resume, albeit with masks, hand-washing and social distancing.

One is the fact the Taoiseach seems in thrall to Nphet after his decision to open up at Christmas proved so costly. And this week, Nphet ruled out regional easing of restrictions on the grounds that “there are counties that look very good this week that won’t look good next week”.

That’s simply not the case. Low-Covid counties like Cork, Leitrim, Kilkenny and Kerry are consistently out-performing all others.

The other big issue for Micheál is the flak he may get for opening up his home county while keeping Dublin and other places firmly locked down. The accusations of favouritism may cost his party.

Still, if a regional approach is the right thing to do, that should trump all other factors. It’s a strategy that has worked well in New Zealand, Switzerland, and Argentina, while Germany is keen on the approach, although the threat of a new wave there has put that on hold for now. Happily, at least for now, Ireland’s cases remain among the lowest in Europe, and should allow for some easing.

There’s another thing to be said for regional reopening. It would encourage people to take a local pride in how their area is doing. “It’s like donning a GAA jersey or being part of the Tidy Towns competition,” explained Professor McLysaght. “If people take a pride in keeping their numbers low, it can really work.”

The ‘green zones’ strategy also won support from a group of more than 30 eminent European scientists who wrote an article for the Lancet, published in newspapers in France, Spain and Germany.

It said that, with hopes of herd immunity this summer fading, nations should change focus from long-term, nationwide lockdowns to a policy of green zones, alongside vaccination and test/trace/isolate strategies.

“The smaller the zones and the less mobility between them, the faster the exit can be reached,” the article stated.

The scientists said if infections flared up within a green zone, they could be swiftly contained, while people travelling from ‘red zones’ would have to present a negative test and quarantine upon arrival.

Such zones “would counter growing fatigue in the population, and provide motivation and empowerment in local communities. They would ensure medical and financial support was concentrated on red zones to help them become green as fast as possible”.

Sounds good to me. Over to you, Taoiseach.

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