COMMENT: Disregard Of COVID-19 Rules Needs To Serve As A Wake-Up Call

This week, amid warnings about a growth in the number of COVID-19 cases in Ireland, and after some of the scenes that had been evident in pubs this weekend, Gavin argues that there needs to be a wake-up call for authorities in how we deal with the virus.

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As sure as night follows day, the first weekend after the re-opening of the pubs was always going to be a test of our compliance with the COVID-19 regulations. Just as inevitable is that, in some cases at least, we didn’t pass this test with flying colours.

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Images of a quasi-street party in Dublin, and ‘hilarious’ drink-laden receipts, were flowing on WhatsApp and social media. Anecdotally, I have heard of other more ‘minor’ breaches of the legislation and I have no doubt but that they were ten-a-penny. Gardaí have confirmed that 26 breaches of the regulations were found (although none of those were in Clare). But this, surely, was always going to happen, and that’s down – at least in part – to the ‘grey areas’ that have become a worryingly common feature of our approach to fighting the virus.

Michael McNamara was right when he highlighted the farcical nature of the €9 meal requirement in pubs, in questioning if health officials were suggesting that a “substantial meal will somehow protect people from COVID-19?” That law, like so much in this country, represents the old adage of an ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem.’ And our attitude to such ‘solutions’ is often very Irish too – there’ll often be a nod and a wink as we skirt around what’s mandated, to come to a compromise or a ‘workable’ solution. So again, it’s no surprise to see what happened last weekend. In some ways, it’s the Irish way.

But this has the potential to pose a serious problem in the very near future.

Clare has now gone four weeks without registering a case of COVID-19 (Well done YOU for your contribution, by the way) but there were already early signs of a fresh spike in cases even before NPHET sounded a note of caution on Thursday evening. Many experts say a second wave is inevitable. But when that comes, it will be treated differently, with restrictions most likely to be imposed on a local or regional level.

But by whom?

The natural instinct is to say the Gardaí, but that nearly didn’t happen this past weekend. It was only announced last Friday evening that they’d be probing the pubs from that night. That came a full four days after the pubs had first re-opened. This suggests that it wasn’t thought out in advance, and judging by the results of the AGSI survey this week, it’s not the first time that Gardaí have been confused by the rules they’re supposed to enforce.

Ireland’s compliance with COVID regulations was strongest when those regulations were most clear. “Stay at home” – that makes sense. “Stay within 20km of your home, or go anywhere in your county, but not too far into the next one,” … That was utterly unenforceable. Just like the advice, but not the instruction, to wear a face covering or to not travel abroad on holidays. And just like the €9 meal or the 105-minute time limit in pub. When communications are unclear, the public’s response isn’t as emphatic, and as a result the virus is given an opportunity to thrive.

What will happen if, for the good of our health, tight restrictions become necessary in a community here, as is already the case in Leicester or in Melbourne? If a county, town or village goes into lockdown, but the one beside it is allowed to stay open, then who polices the ‘border’ between them? How will the instructions be communicated effectively? As this possibility has already been broached, then one can only hope that the answers to those questions have already been thought out. But recent evidence makes one question whether that’s actually the case, and highlights the need for strong planning in advance.

We can’t simply make this up as we go along. Otherwise, we will have a very big Irish problem, with no solution.