Speech of the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar T.D.,
Statement on COVID-19,
Dáil Éireann, Tuesday 24 November 2020.
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It’s been some time since I have given my views on Covid and I welcome the opportunity to share some of my thinking.
As we all know, the Government faces difficult decisions in the week ahead, as we approach the end of six weeks of Level 5 restrictions. We sail between Scylla and Charybdis in trying to set the right course.
In doing so, we know for certain that increased human interaction will result in more people getting infected thus increasing the chance of a third wave.
2020 has been a write-off for many families and for many businesses, for young and old alike. For others it has been a year of grief, with three thousand lives lost across Ireland. We should never forget those who grieve and I extend my condolences to them once more.
While we have not done everything right as a Government or as a society, I do believe, we have managed the pandemic well compared to our peers. We acted quickly in our response.
Today, the 14 day incidence of the virus is the third lowest in Europe and even though we use the widest measure to count deaths, recording even suspected cases, we rank 34th in the world in terms of mortality, and falling.
It is clear now that the second wave has been very different to the first.
While the number of cases detected has been many times greater; the number of hospitalisations, patients requiring admission to an ICU and deaths, has thankfully, been much lower. Indeed, there is no evidence yet of any statistically significant increase in ‘excess deaths’ in the second wave.
Of course, had we not acted as we did, this would almost certainly not have been the case and we would have experienced the high level of excess deaths such as are now now being seen in other parts of Europe.
There are many reasons why the second wave was not as serious as the first. These include more testing, a younger cohort of people getting infected, the older and infirm being better protected, and better knowledge of how to treat the disease. These trends are likely to continue.
The fact that the second wave was so different than the first is significant and should guide us in how we can go forward.
First of all, it is clear that there should not be an over-emphasis on case numbers and particularly not daily case numbers. Cases translate into hospitalisations and deaths but not at rates previously projected. Once again, our health service never came close to being overwhelmed. Also, it seems there is a seasonal component to SARS-CoV2 just as there is for other coronaviruses.
Level 3 was probably more effective that we thought at the time. Level 5 was not as effective as was modelled, but was needed to get the numbers down. It is worth noting that the objective set out by Government 5 weeks ago was the R < 1 and cases and hospitalisations falling, rather than NPHETs model-based target of an R < 0.5 or cases at < 100.
Also, trajectory is important and the situation can deteriorate rapidly and return to exponential growth. And while we know much more about the virus, it is just as contagious and transmissible as it was before.
I believe we should seek to ease restrictions next week but not so much that it requires it to return to Level 4 or 5 for a prolonged period in the New Year.
A short third period of enhanced restrictions may well be necessary in January or February but we should try to avoid it being a prolonged one.
Our strategy of ‘suppression’ is perhaps best described as one of ‘delay and vaccinate’ and I do not believe we are too far away from seeing it succeed.
Safe and effective vaccines are on the way, and when we vaccinate those most at risk like nursing home residents and healthcare workers, about 200,000 people, we will change the calculus for future decision-making.
It will reduce the R number, case numbers and mortality rates even as we extend the vaccine more widely to other groups, as we must, to achieve herd immunity.
Antigen mass testing, notwithstanding its limitations, will have a role to play in 2021 in identifying more cases, more quickly and reducing the risk of spread.
Ceann Comhairle, it is well understood that there are risks associated with international travel. This is particularly so for travel from areas of high incidence to areas of low incidence.
The European traffic light system which Government has adopted, linked to pre and post-travel testing, does not eliminate this risk but does reduce it. We need to embrace it and enforce it.
Another real risk that we cannot ignore is north-south travel within Ireland. The incidence of the virus in Northern Ireland is a multiple of what it is in this State and so is the mortality rate.
Northern Ireland is a different jurisdiction and makes its own decisions under the Good Friday Agreement. We respect that. However, we would be in denial not to recognise that a less intensive approach to the virus there, since the start, has its consequences.
Our public health authorities collect very good data on cases imported to Ireland due to international travel and even cases related to imported cases.
Such data do not exist for cases linked to cross-border travel on the Island, this is a gap in our data which needs to be closed as it affects our ability to make evidenced-based decisions.
As Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment my responsibility is to protect jobs, businesses and livelihoods, to create the conditions where we can safely return to work and stay at work - to give everyone with a job confidence for today, as well as hope for the future.
The Government has put in place extra-ordinary measures to protect incomes and keep businesses alive –
- the pandemic unemployment payment,
- restart grants,
- low cost loans,
- a commercial rates holiday,
- lower VAT,
- wage subsidies
- and the weekly payment for businesses that are closed, the CRSS.
It is essential that these interventions should continue as necessary and should not be removed too quickly. For this reason, we have set aside €3.5bn for 2021 in the form of an unallocated Recovery Fund so we can respond to the twin challenges of Brexit and Covid. While the pot is limited, and has to last the full year, we should not be afraid to deploy it.
When it comes to decisions on re-opening, Government has a particular responsibility to provide clear guidance to the public and to businesses. We also need to marshal our agencies from the Gardai, to HSE Environmental Health Officers to HSA inspectors to improve enforcement.
Last Friday, to assist, we published an updated Work Safely Protocol which sets out the actions that need to be taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Unfortunately, many see the debate about what to do in December as a conflict between protecting lives and protecting jobs, as if our society and our economy were in some kind of contest.
It is a false dichotomy and always has been. It’s as if the people who work in shops, or own a small business, don’t also worry about their own health, and that of their family and loved ones.
As if the people who are most at risk from COVID don’t also yearn for the company of other people, or to be able to do some shopping, or to enjoy some Christmas cheer.
In an ideal world we would be able to provide certainty to businesses and to consumers, and give plenty of advance notice, but we cannot.
There are, unfortunately, too many moving parts, too many factors beyond our control, too many new things to take into account every day.
COVID-19 behaves in unexpected ways, so we have to plan for every eventuality, and make decisions based on changing evidence and new facts.
During this period of restrictions, many of us have become frustrated and downcast - annoyed by examples of people breaking the rules - impatient for things to reopen and return to the way things were before.
Too many lives have been lost.
Too many lives have been put on hold for too long, especially for younger people.
No one is immune from feelings of anger or resentment or fear or frustration.
But, we will not fight community transmission with anger, blame or finger-pointing. We will beat it with community spirit – just as we did before.
As a country, even in the darkest days, we never lost hope.
We have a little way to go still and we should not lose hope now.
As a Government we will do everything we can but this will not be a normal Christmas. We will have to limit ourselves and our movements. We will have to be patient. We will have be tolerant of each other and understanding of lapses. All the time redoubling our efforts against COVID-19.
Ceann Comhairle, for centuries people have debated the true meaning of Christmas - the original wish upon a star. At its most meaningful, it is about thinking of others and about bringing the happiness to others. Hope. And Good News.
This year will be a Christmas like no other, but it can still be a good one, if we keep the faith.