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Irish Politics

Government must communicate and act as a team during indefinite pandemic

It is now clear that we are going to have to live with COVID-19 in our midst for the indefinite future. The consensus is that we simply cannot succeed in a strategy of killing off completely the virus on the island of Ireland by a re-imposed total lockdown. We are not geographically isolated like New Zealand and even there the virus re-emerged when it seemed that it had been eradicated.

Most people seem to have concluded that whatever test and trace strategy has been put in place is incapable of dealing with the virus. Is it not time for maximum transparency in relation to the geographical incidence of the virus and the human resources that are deployed in testing and tracing?

Listening to broadcast media coverage of these matters and reading newspapers, one is left with a vague impression only of the physical places that are encountering spikes. Even allowing for personal privacy, there is very little value in vague statements about community transmission in huge areas described as west, northwest and north central Dublin.

How reported outbreaks feed into hospitalisations, intensive care admissions and mortality is not reported in detail. Clinicians' success rates in treating newly discovered cases seem to have improved. But that is merely an impression.

Jim O'Callaghan's plea on Sunday for an economic strategy to be made public made sense to me.

Public confidence needs to be nurtured by full and frank explanation and information. That applies to economic strategy just as much as it applies to public health strategy. Radio and TV advertisements are of limited use and risk falling foul of the law of diminishing returns as far as effectiveness is concerned.

In relation to the economy, we need as much clarity and certainty as is possible to create circumstances that encourage enterprise and investment.  Extending wage subsidies and tax cuts into next year may be necessary but is it sufficient? Much hope is centred on the forthcoming Budget.

But its formulation should be an open and transparent process. To take one example, the recent decision to cut VAT from 23% to 21% from next month raises the question as to whether the revenue foregone could have been more effectively  targeted on selective vulnerable areas of employment and commerce. We have had very little analysis of the intended or actual effect of the 2% cut in VAT.

Paschal Donohoe is a skilled communicator and a competent minister. He needs to educate us on the problems he faces and the options that are and are not open to him. The traditional budget day secrecy and the magician's hoopla of surprising the Dáil with eye-catching proposals seems outdated and inappropriate in present circumstances.

We only have one government. It is made up of people who are well-motivated and who want to act in the public interest. We need competence in our politics - not point-scoring. While it is true that political accountability involves scrutiny and scepticism, the country faces huge collective challenges that will not met by party trench warfare.

We also need to concentrate on what we actually do rather than allow ourselves to be mesmerised by the risks inherent in political options.

The return to schools and colleges is a case in point.

Yes, there are risks involved. But the certainty of massive social damage caused by not re-opening schools and colleges means that we have to get our children and students back into education and we must do it now.

When Health Minister Stephen Donnelly correctly pointed out that there is risk involved in our road traffic and in allowing children play on bouncing castles, he was inanely accused of likening the pandemic to playing on bouncy castles. His point was that we all take risks daily and that excessive risk aversion in the face of the pandemic would produce social harm and economic paralysis.

We need Government to level with us on the enormous challenges we face in keeping the economy functioning in the context of a pandemic.

Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar have served long political apprenticeships. They are well intentioned, decent  men. They need our backing. And they need to earn our backing by communicating frankly with us. Publishing ten-year plans is no use. Their Programme for Government is a massively aspirational wish list. We need to know what they intend to do over the next four and a half years.  There will be plenty of time to position themselves with the electorate in four years' time. For now, they must act as a team.

The pandemic has changed many agendas. But housing is an unchanged agenda item. The State must face up to the housing crisis now - not in ten years' time. Let's see our Government spell out its short- and medium-term economic strategy now and let's face up to the real challenges together.


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