This approach is outlined in the Government’s paper: “Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with COVID-19”.
The main policy tool is a tiered system of measures that offers more protection at higher tiers or ‘Levels’. Each Level contains a set of risk control measures that will be applied across every part of society for the duration of its implementation period. The measures include prescriptions for which businesses are allowed to operate, whether children are permitted to go to school, the numbers of guests at weddings and funerals, and even how far people can travel from their homes.
The Government’s official goal “in line with the public health advice, is suppression”, presumably until herd immunity is achieved via vaccination. Suppression has not yet been achieved, nor does it appear likely within the framework.
The strength of the ‘Living With the Virus’ approach is that it allows policymakers to adjust their policy response to the risk posed by the virus at the time. The tiers can be raised in full or in part and at short notice, meaning the Government always has some degree of control over the outbreak. The tiers also provide forward guidance to the public about the likely path of the restrictions on their activities. The strategy offers better public health outcomes than Focused Protection, as the transmission of the disease and the burden on the health care system is observed and communicated by NPHET, with the Government making the final decision on any change in policy. Unfortunately, those health benefits come at an extreme cost to our businesses, our economy, our physical and mental health, and our societal cohesion.
Public Sector Costs
The ‘Living With the Virus’ approach places an enormous burden on the public finances.
The Government must continue to provide financial support to employees of businesses that have been forced to closed by the plan. These supports include the PUP, the TWSS, the Short-Term Work Support and the Enhanced Illness Benefit Payment. Businesses can also avail of Government supports, including direct payments and grants, credit guarantees, and lending.
The Government must also continue to fund the additional costs on the health care system brought about by the waves of infection that will inevitably follow over the coming year. Costs include PCR testing, PPE, contact tracing system, sick pay and other supports for health care workers. Future costs of care not received, mental illness and PTSD are significant but unquantifiable.
This massive increase in the Government’s expenditure is taking place while tax revenues from all sources are falling. As a result, the government will need to borrow more over the coming years. The debt will incur additional interest costs and it will take decades to pay off.
In summary, the Government’s finances will continue to deteriorate until either the virus has been eliminated or widespread vaccination has been achieved.
Private Sector Costs
The deterioration of the Government’s finances reflect the trauma that is being experienced in the private sector, and especially in the most ‘contact-heavy’ industries of hospitality and events, arts and entertainment, and tourism. Their costs are not so much economic as existential. In such a volatile and uncertain environment, many of these businesses cannot be confident that they will be able to maintain their operations and have chosen to close on their own terms, rather than on the bank’s. This has had spill over effects for their suppliers in other sectors, and for their staff, most of whom have been forced onto the PUP are now earning less while their rents and other costs have stayed the same.
Most disturbing of all, the companies that have been worst affected in this environment are Ireland’s SMEs. The nation’s already weak indigenous business sector has taken another major blow as huge swathes have been wiped out by the pandemic. In contrast, the international corporations with larger cash buffers and greater access to credit have less illiquidity and insolvency risk, and many have been able to grow through the crisis. Whether the continued pressure on the private sector leads to widespread insolvencies and defaults remains to be seen. The tail risk of a financial sector collapse cannot be removed from the table.
Exposure to Further Risks
The B117 strain and the E484K mutations have shown us that the virus is capable of evolving in ways that make it significantly more dangerous to our society. The virus can become more infectious, more virulent, less detectable with our current tests, or more resistant to therapeutics and vaccination. It could jump to another species or target different demographics and these kinds of variants are inevitable. Mutation is a consistent and continuous process, and one that will only produce outcomes that are good for the virus, and bad for its hosts. The more time we give it to work, the greater the cost to our society.
Perhaps the most fundamental flaw of any attempt to live with the virus, is that it cannot address the chronic, nauseating, irresolvable uncertainty that the virus brings into our lives. It is impossible to know what restrictions will be in place even weeks into the future and with such a short window of visibility over our affairs, the planning and forecasting that are fundamental to human nature and our social lives cannot be achieved.
We have only a vague timeline for the process of vaccination, so there is little clarity on when herd immunity will be achieved. The virus could become more contagious again, some cohorts may refuse vaccination, and the manufacture and distribution of vaccines could be stalled for any number of reasons. Based on current projections, one would have to assume that it will not be achieved in 2021, and that the risk is that it will be later still.
The Levels - A Useful Contribution
It should be noted that graduated systems of risk control measures are a common feature of national pandemic response frameworks. It is important that Ireland has such a system and that it is fit for purpose. It is equally important that every part of our society understands how the ‘Levels’ apply to their circumstances, both as individuals and as collectives.
However, the purpose of such a framework is to protect the public health from the initial threat of the virus (in which case we move quickly up the Levels) and once the threat has been eliminated, we slowly and safely descend the Levels until we return to a normal functioning society. It is not designed to manage the transmission of the virus over months and years, as we are learning.
Living With The Virus isn’t a plan. Living With The Virus is what inevitably happens when you don’t have a plan. It isn’t a strategy; it’s the absence of a strategy. It is what happens when you take the path of least resistance. Naturally, this is where the Irish find themselves, further comforted by the false promise that we’ll all be vaccinated soon enough. It is not possible to live with the virus; only to live in fear of the virus. We can, and we must, do better.
After months of extraordinary economic damage, continuing with this approach will only push more businesses into insolvency. The turbulence in the economy, the uncertainty around future policy and its impacts on people’s lives, and the total failure of experts and policymakers to end the nation’s misery makes for an increasingly angry public. This approach might work in the short-run, but the threat of serious civil disorder increases every day.
Ireland’s natural centrism is admirable. If more countries took a centrist approach to their affairs, the world would surely be a more peaceful, harmonious place. However, for centrism to work, policymakers must identify and address problems while they are still in the centre. If problems are allowed to grow and fester, there will come a point where centrism and ‘balance’ will no longer be able to secure the health and happiness of our communities. That is what happened in the first quarter of 2020, and that is why we have been living in an extreme environment ever since.