The Government is facing a difficult communications challenge in the weeks ahead. It is going to have to tell us all that the restrictions will last longer than had been anticipated, while at the same time persuading the public that the vaccine campaign is on track and will bring some release in the second half of the year.
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While we can see the vaccine cavalry coming over the distant hill, the battle we face before it arrives is looking ever more difficult. If you expect most of the economy and society to be reopened by St Patrick’s Day – or even Easter – I fear you will be disappointed. Let’s hope I’m wrong, but there is no way the Government – following what happened after Christmas and in light of the dire picture across Europe – is going to reopen everything quickly and hope for the best.
I wouldn’t attempt to forecast how the infection numbers may go. They could fall quickly enough, but all the expert commentary is that we will face a battle in keeping the numbers down. The UK variant is here and others are popping up from other parts of the world. As at least some of these are a good deal more transmissible, it is going to be harder to keep the infection numbers down. And so, more of the economy and society is likely to stay closed for longer.
We are starting to get a clearer idea about when vaccinations might happen and there is some encouragement here. Summer and early autumn will be the key targets. Numbers will rise sharply from March on and 70 per cent of the population could be vaccinated by September – and earlier in terms of the adult population. Everyone who wants the vaccine should have it by late September or October, depending on demand.
For this to happen, you would need the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to be available soon, shortly followed by the potentially-vital one-shot jab from Johnson & Johnson (also called the Jannsen vaccine as Jannsen is part of J&J) and another one from a company called CureVac. There would need to be not too many supply interruptions – we are already seeing how these can pop up. And the vaccine campaign needs to deliver more than 250,000 jabs a week, at peak.
(By the way, will we see some “efficacy envy” as the jabs are rolled out and people compare which one they got and the protection it offers? “Oh, you got the 65 per cent one. You’ll probably be okay but, of course, I got the 94 per cent jab.”)
What about reopening the economy and society? People will have to be persuaded to stick to restrictions – even the ones who have been vaccinated – to keep numbers down for some months to come. The Government will try to reopen schools and perhaps the construction sector. The timing of this remains uncertain,
But there are clear warnings that the reopening of other businesses will not even start until the end of March. And this is likely to be a slow process, as Tánaiste Leo Varadkar underlined on RTÉ radio on Friday. It is not clear how soon non-food retail will be allowed to fully reopen, but it would be next in line.
The real crux of this will be the wider hospitality sector – the hotels, restaurants, cafes and so on where people mix. With more transmissible variants in circulation, there must be a strong chance that these will be kept closed for a longer period, perhaps until early summer, which will require an extension and repurposing of the supports currently in place. It is hard to see wet pubs fully opening until much later in the year.
When will vaccination start to improve the figures enough to allow reopening to accelerate? A lot of uncertainties remain. We are not sure if vaccines not only stop you getting sick, but also stop you getting – and thus possibly transmitting – the virus. Close attention will be paid to what happens in the countries vaccinated more quickly, notably Israel.
Experts say deaths will fall quickly after a couple of months – the Government promises everyone in nursing homes and people over 70 will be vaccinated by the end of March and this should bring down mortality. But it is harder to forecast hospitalisations and case numbers, so tight restrictions are here for quite a while.
Soon enough, we will need to hear the Government plan. Two things have changed – the new variants and the arrival of vaccines. It requires a reformulated strategy for how we finally get shot of this thing and the steps to get there.
And this simply has to be the last lockdown – even if that means it goes on longer. A wider reopening for St Patrick’s Day or Easter and then numbers rising again thus causing another shutdown would be a disaster. Whether social controls on gatherings and visits or economic restrictions are more important in terms of risk, we don’t know, but with vaccines on the horizon the clear political call this time will be to err well on the side of caution.
This is a tough outlook for the businesses affected. They are often referred to pejoratively as “vested interests”. But most of them are small and medium-sized enterprises and many are desperately hanging on. Already the numbers on the pandemic payment – their employees – are back close to 500,000 again.
As well as hospitality, the wider travel sector continues to suffer and prospects look poor of much inward tourism for most of this year, especially given rolling international travel restrictions and recent publicity about Ireland’s high virus numbers. And some sectors, such as entertainment, remain closed since last March and will be the last to reopen.
A huge rebuilding of jobs awaits when this is over. The scale of this will grow as the lockdown extends. But first we have to get through a difficult few months.