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Irish Politics

Public is getting the mushroom treatment on Covid regulations

It is fair to say that we are living in an emergency where hugely important decisions for the economy, public health and social conditions are being made by Cabinet decree through the medium of statutory instruments under the Health Act 1947 immediately effective unless and until cancelled by the Houses of the Oireachtas.

You might imagine, then, that in a democracy there would be some scrutiny of these decrees and some opportunity for democratically elected public representatives in those Houses of the Oireachtas to question their rationality and proportionality.

Short of putting down resolutions in both Houses to annul those decrees, there is in fact no real means of examining their necessity, their detailed content, or their reasonableness, or of amending them. The Dáil Covid committee is fed a very limited diet of data and information. Boris Johnson had to testify before a Westminster recently; our Taoiseach has not done so. Parliamentary questions in the Dáil are highly structured and suited to evasive or obfuscating replies.

You might think that the public and their representatives are getting what is politely termed the mushroom treatment.

As Paul Cullen wrote this week in the Irish Times, the proffered rationale for closing down Dublin restaurants was eventually tracked and traced to a claim by a NPHET member that there was “international evidence” pointing to restaurants as potential foci of transmission. Strange then that the UK government spent vast sums of public moneys subsidising anyone who would go out to eat in a restaurant.

What is the evidence – national or international – for differentiating between pubs that require their patrons to consume a €9 meal and pubs that don’t? Was the meal a form of deterrent mandatory cover charge? And what is the national or international evidence for now requiring Dublin pubs to serve such meals outdoors (if they can) while allowing wet pubs outside Dublin for the first time since March to re-open and dispense with the €9 meal completely?

Nor is it at all clear from the latest regulations (SI No.353 of 2020) whether a Dublin restaurant or pub can actually serve alcohol with a meal consumed at tables in the open air adjacent to the premises. You’ll be glad to know that the serving of a meal for consumption off the premises by  casinos remains legitimate! Bizzare!

Back in June we were told of a phased plan for the re-opening of the economic life of the country. This month a new set of phases for re-opening were announced just as there was an upswing in community transmission of Covid. No sooner was the September plan replete with its conditions 1 to 5 published but the Government slammed on the brakes for Dublin, made ominous noises about other counties, and yet accelerated the opening of all wet pubs outside the Pale.

Is this coherent? Are indoor restaurants the foci for transmission of Covid and indoor pubs with no meals not the foci for transmission? Is there evidence – national or international – justifying such distinctions?

What exactly has caused the recent increase in reported Covid infections? Was it returning travellers? Was it a collapse in social distancing? Was it a by-product of the reopening of our schools? Was it inevitable? It can hardly be seasonal at this point?

And given that the recent Dublin measures are supposed to last 3 weeks, what happens then? What will have happened in three weeks to prevent a recrudescence of Covid in the capital? Or is the three week duration a stratagem to soften up public opinion for a semi-permanent extension of the measures? If the curve flattens as a result in Dublin, does that justify its being made permanent?

The way in which the broadcast media deal with Covid is a matter that deserves a special study in itself. Government advertising is, of course, permissible. And it may constitute a considerable source of revenue? But does editorial coverage have to be in line with that advertising?

We hear that the State is monitoring public reaction to Covid by weekly opinion surveys. To what end? If the public is, as we are told such surveying suggests, growing weary of the crisis, does that mean that the messaging will be ramped up or rolled out differently or with more intensity? Is the State in the business of opinion formation along the lines of wartime propaganda?

I recently posed the question here as to precisely what had been done since March by the HSE to increase our ICU capacity. I have heard no report of a coherent, quantified account being given. Nor have I heard our broadcasters insist on being given this information by HSE interviewees.

I believe that the great majority of Irish people want to act in solidarity with suppression of the virus. But they don’t need to be treated as children. Levelling with the people on all the facts – not just the convenient facts – will sustain social solidarity. We have to get on with economic recovery to avoid a double whammy.


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