Controlling Covid-19 is once again in the Irish people's hands
As Ireland tries to once again bring Covid-19 back under control, it will be people following the spirit of the guidelines, and not necessarily the letter of them, that will do it.
Ireland entered Level 5 restrictions, with some moderations, at midnight on Wednesday. That's Wednesday into Thursday, so Thursday morning. Not Wednesday morning. Just making sure you got that. We clear? Good. Wouldn't want any confusion there.
We have, for what may feel like the first time since early summer, a clear message. It's not a nice one, but it's designed and hoped to be an effective one. Stay at home, unless it's for an essential purpose.
The hope, and it is a hope, is that this short(ish), sharp(ish) lockdown will drive Ireland's R number back below 1, push daily cases down to 100 and regain control of the virus. For a period of six weeks, we are being asked to act as if we are close contacts of a confirmed case, and to restrict our movements accordingly.
It is largely comparable to what occurred in March as the pandemic began to take hold here, with obvious exceptions. The travel limit is at five kilometres, schools remain open, many businesses too, remain open. But perhaps the biggest difference is in the area that really matters most; public buy-in.
Anyone who has ventured out of their home since Level 5 kicked in may not have noticed a perceptible drop in traffic, human or otherwise, in their local area. Bar a few more shutters being pulled, will people's habits change?
Are we all simply too Covid-fatigued to return to Zoom quizzes? Is the national mood too low to be buoyed by forwarded WhatsApp memes? Is the relentless closing in of wintry nights simply a pathetic fallacy for a people sick and tired of having to deal with the relentlessness of a pandemic that has sucked so much joy from our lives in the last eight months?
Yes, to all of the above. But what's the alternative?
What we do in the next six weeks will affect how this virus spreads in our country. It will either continue, unabated, and those most vulnerable will not be able to be protected. Or it will recede, likely temporarily.
It has been an oft-spoken line since March by Dr Tony Holohan and others; this virus isn't simply 'out there', it's in people. People transmit this virus, people pass it to each other, people can therefore stop its spread.
Professor Philip Nolan outlined the effect of people's actions bluntly on Thursday evening;
"We’re at 1,200 cases a day on average now, our objective is to get that down to 100. For every 100 reduction (in daily cases) over the next months; that saves 120 hospitalisations, 15 admissions to ICU and 20 deaths in the community, never mind the protections that that level of reduction offers to nursing homes.
"This is very real now. Every effort we make over the next six weeks saves hospitalisations and saves lives."
It's a core message we all need to remember in the coming weeks. What we do can bring down daily case figures, and in turn the numbers who require hospital care or an ICU bed. It can also save lives.
Systematic failures have also spread this virus, in ways entirely beyond the control of the population as a whole. Outbreaks in meat-processing plants drove infections in Kildare, Laois and Offaly and led to localised restrictions. A breakdown in the contract tracing system last weekend resulted in people being asked to do their own contact tracing.
But, largely, the transmission of the virus (if not our capacity to respond to it) lies literally in the hands of the population as a whole.
Speaking at the first Covid-19 briefing since the Level 5 restrictions came into effect, Dr. Holohan made a point that perhaps sums up the approach needed in the coming weeks, and likely months.
"We're asking people to stick to, not just the letter of the guidance, but the spirit of it... Not seek to find an opportunity to get around or interpret the guidance in a way that says 'ah, this doesn't apply to me'.
"We're asking people to stay at home unless there's a really good reason to be out. That's a simple message, it's easy to understand, it's easy to follow."
The spirit of the guidance is to protect the most vulnerable, allow key areas of society to continue operating safely and to prevent the spread of Covid-19. While there may be ways and means to finagle opportunities to work around them, and we may not face any legal repercussions for it, there could be an effect.
Irish people are once again being asked to go to the well to bring this virus back under control. We are being asked to do so with a leaky bucket and a dwindling reserve, with the path ahead scarcely lit beyond the next few steps.
Once again, it's in our hands.