Restrictions Eased

Last night the Taioseach Micheál Martin went on the telly to confirm, amid a flood of clichés, the news that had been leaking all day that most public health restrictions in Ireland were to be scrapped from 6am this morning. That means all capacity limits on pubs and restaurants, social distancing, vaccination certificates, household gatherings, etc, no longer apply from today. I wasn’t up at 6am to see anyone rushing to the nearest pub to celebrate but I suspect some might have done.

The scale of the loosening of restrictions has taken a lot of us by surprise, especially as case numbers, though falling, are still at very high levels. This was the situation yesterday:

The key thing is the orange line, which has remained steady and low despite the rising number of cases; the very successful vaccination booster programme and the apparently less lethal nature of the omicron variant have combined to keep hospitalizations well below hospital capacity, especially for intensive care and relatively stable.

Let me remark on the fatality figures. Ireland only reports Covid-19 related deaths once a week now, on Wednesdays. In the week up to 19th January, 52 deaths were reported. That compares with 1,865 over the same period in the UK (and that figure is obtained using an artificial 28-day cutoff, i.e. a Covid-19 related death is only counted as such if it occurs within 28 days of a positive test). The population of the UK is about 67 million, compared to Ireland’s 5 million, i.e. about 13 times larger. The number of Covid-19 related deaths however, even using the artificially reduced UK figure, is 36 times larger. That means the per capita death rate there in the UK is at least 2.7 times higher than here in Ireland. What are so many more people dying in the UK? The only reason I can think of is that the UK has significantly worse vaccination coverage.

Note also that although most restrictions are being removed, that does not mean all restrictions are being removed. People who test positive for Covid-19 will still have to isolate, as will close contacts. Face coverings will still be required in indoor settings such as shops and on public transport, for example. I for one would have carried on wearing a face covering in such places even if it were not required.

Obviously it is good that restrictions are being removed. Everyone I know is fed up and many businesses, especially in the hospitality sector, are struggling. I would however like to make two points.

First, give a thought to those people who are medically vulnerable. They will be very concerned at the removal of social distancing. I can imagine that many will have good reasons for not wanting to be in the crowded environments that are now allowed. I certainly think we should continue to make it possible for students in that situation, or those who have to isolate, to follow lectures remotely.

My second point is that almost everyone seems to be assuming that there’s no possibility at all of another, more lethal, variant coming along and putting us all back to square one. The greater the level of infection circulating, the greater the probability this will happen. Loosening restrictions will lead to a further increase in cases and a greater probability of further mutations in the coronavirus. For that reason alone I would have preferred a more gradual relaxation of the rules. In other words, I don’t agree with this front page in today’s Irish Times, which I think is highly irresponsible.

It crossed my mind last night that it was in mid-March 2020 that we entered our first lockdown. What’s the betting that we’ll have to reimpose restrictions about the same time in 2022 as a result of another surge?

We don’t know yet precisely what all this means for teaching at Maynooth University, which is due to resume a week on Monday. I’d guess that it means that all lectures, including very large ones, will be on campus. We’ll have to wait for official guidance on that, though I’m fairly confident there won’t be big changes for my Department compared with last Semester. My one concern was physical distancing in the Computational Physics lab, but that seems likely not to be an issue now.

There won’t be any big changes for me in a personal sense either. I don’t intend to suddenly start going out in crowded places and it will take me some time to feel confident enough to resume my concert-going, etc. When the Taoiseach announced the removal of all physical distancing requirements yesterday, to take place from early the next morning, it was as if we were all expected to turn overnight from fermions into bosons. I’ve never liked crowds and have become even more agoraphobic over the last two years of the pandemic. It will be some time before I get over that, if I ever do.

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