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Goodbye to the new normal, but is everyone ready to go back to the old normal?

The government announced an easing of restrictions yesterday.

A crowd share a toast at the Guinness Storehouse.
A crowd share a toast at the Guinness Storehouse.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

“I WOULDN’T GO that far.”

That was Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s response when asked this week if he and the government felt the pandemic was soon to be over. 

It was a fair question, as Varadkar was announcing the public holiday he’d said the week previous would have been premature to unveil. 

Yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin made it clear that the pandemic was not over but that the “emergency” phase had passed. 

“I want to be clear that the pandemic isn’t over – it will still require all of us to be vigilant,” he said. 

Globally, the pandemic is unlikely to be ‘over’ any time soon, such is the disparity of vaccine access in different parts of the world, but here we are lucky enough to be entering a new stage.

This stage is the unwinding of the restrictions on social mixing that have been in place in one form or another for most of the last two years. In its place is a system where Covid-19 becomes an endemic disease that will be managed like many others. 

This development has been made possible by the reality that, as cases have skyrocketed to levels never seen previously, there hasn’t been a comparable increase in hospitalisations or serious illness. 

The plans for the unwinding of restrictions were confirmed by the government yesterday, with most significant restrictions in fact ending from 6am this morning. Bars, restaurants and nightclubs are set for full return today as capacity and time limits are lifted. 

Mask-wearing in certain situations will remain for the time being but that will also be kept under review. 

But as Ireland begins to turn its back on the ‘new normal’ to which it has become so accustomed, will people be ready for the old normal all over again?

‘Behavioural lag’ 

“It will take time,” according Pete Lunn of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit.

“What we’ve seen throughout this pandemic is a kind of public discourse that suggests that there is a clamour for restrictions to be lifted and for people to return to normal or to start being highly, socially active again.

“That has never been the case and it is not the case now. There’s always been a very vocal minority, who are super keen to be more socially active and to push back towards normal, but the majority of the population want to go more slowly than that and want to be more cautious than that.”

He adds that, throughout the pandemic, the ESRI has observed a “behavioural lag” between the time people are allowed to do something and when the public at large actually start to do it.

Partly this is down to caution but it’s also down to the nature of social activity and how it takes time for people to organise plans or simply get in touch. 

Opinion polls tracking people’s feelings on restrictions in Ireland have more often than not leaned on the side of caution. 

The Amárach Public Opinion Tracker has shown consistently over the past two years that people are more likely to say reopening is happening too quickly rather than two slowly. 

Significantly, this changed this week ahead of the government’s announcement.

PastedImage-55446 Source: DEpartment of Health

Two years of conditioning about what’s safe and appropriate take a little time to disappear, and there’s also the fact that the risk posed by Covid-19 is not the same for everybody across society.

While vaccination and the Omicron variant have meant that the threat to the wider healthcare system is not as severe as earlier in the pandemic, risks at an individual level have not changed for some. 

For example, people who are immunocompromised will still be immunocompromised and must still take extra care. 

The reality that some people may be ready for the ‘old’ normal and that others may not is something that needs to be acknowledged and spoken about, Lunn says.

“There is no way to think about this that is the right way; there is no correct way to decide how much risk to take in life. And I think it’s just important to acknowledge that.”

It’s just human nature that we have some people who are more extroverted and outgoing and we have some people that are less so. What the pandemic does is it really kind of puts that squarely in front of us. It’s a situation in which those differences are exaggerated because of the threat. 

Worry index

Lunn points to the separate but similar research carried out by the ESRI and Amárach Research.

Both sets of surveys have tracked people’s overall feelings about where we are during the pandemic and the prevailing worry that exists. 

PastedImage-31360 Source: Department of Health

Amárach calls it the ‘Worry Index’ and asks people how concerned they are about Covid-19 on a scale of 1-10.

As of last week, the average was at 5.5 – but Lunn says what’s more illuminating than the average is the contrast between various people. 

You have a huge variation in it. You have a substantial amount of the population, about a quarter typically, scoring it at any time 8-10. Then you’ve got another quarter that will be down at 4.

Lunn adds that while some of this variation is down to the age of people, the effect of age “is actually only very small”.

“It’s much more to do with people’s individual psychology,” he explains.

“I think what that tells us is that there’s great diversity and there is a danger of tension between people. We have to, I think, be accepting of each other in that regard.

“It is perfectly reasonable for some people to be more frightened of this disease than others and for some people to be more cautious than others. That is perfectly reasonable.”

The Amárach research also provides glimpses into people’s future intentions, but whether that behaviour comes to pass remains to be seen.

For example, 50% of people say they will continue to wear a face covering in public after Covid-19, with 70% saying they will continue to socially distance while queuing.

But Lunn says he would be “wary” of such predictions as people have a habit of “projecting into the future what they do now”. 

Speaking yesterday on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, sociologist at Mary Immaculate College Limerick Prof Niamh Hourigan pointed to the experience of the SARS outbreak in south-east asia and how that led to lasting behavioural shifts. 

“It’s very interesting, if you look at Hong Kong after the SARS outbreak, which is a long time ago, but in that society you saw patterns of mask wearing remain in place for a very long time afterwards and indeed it still continues today,” she said. 

So I don’t think by any means we’re going to see a flip in the broader group of Irish society into kind of a massive party or a blowout. But I think certainly in some groups, and I think particularly for young people, there is a pent up sense that they’ve lost two years. 

Legal restrictions

3910 Garda Checkpoints A garda checkpoint in February 2021.

The unwinding of restrictions also means the government must let go of emergency powers that would have seemed scarcely believable in any other context. 

For a significant period during the pandemic it was not permitted to be too far from one’s home for non-essential reasons. At times, it was even illegal to go to the airport to leave the country without a reasonable excuse.  

Such extraordinary measures have lapsed, but rights groups have insisted that the State must also recognise that they should not return without proper oversight and consultation. 

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Liam Herrick of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) says the return to normality should also mean a return to legislating in the normal way.

He points to the emergency powers that were given to the Minister for Health to make laws without the approval of the Oireachtas in the spring of 2020.

These powers have been renewed four times and are currently set to lapse at the end of March. Herrick says they should not be extended again. 

“What we’re seeing this week about businesses and the ending of certain business restrictions, the phrase that’s being used is normalisation, a return to normality, and we think that is the right way to think about this.”
It’s not that things were perfect before the pandemic by any stretch of the imagination but that certain basic standards and norms need to be respected.

“We do have to have a serious conversation about how we manage emergencies in the future, have a proper legal regime in place which properly considers human rights and also maintains democratic oversight.”

The need for a conversation was acknowledged by the Taoiseach yesterday when he was asked by The Journal whether a human rights assessments on the legislation used was required. 

“On the relationship between public health restrictions, legislation and human rights. That’s always a tension,” Martin said. 

But we have to remind ourselves that this is a once in 100 year event. So it’s not willingly or with any degree of enthusiasm that a government imposes restrictions on people. It’s not a popular thing to do it I can assure you. These are things we would normally never even contemplate

Martin argued that the very fact that government has now moved to remove restrictions “so quickly” demonstrates its “good faith” in taking the decisions when it did. 

He added: “But yes, we will evaluate this from a human rights perspective. I think that’s important as part of the wider evaluation of how we conducted ourselves in during the pandemic.”

Covid certs

The ICCL acknowledges that, from a civil liberties perspective, most of the incursions on those rights that were justified by the pandemic were removed even prior to yesterday. 

The two that remained were Mandatory Hotel Quarantine and Digital Covid Certs for entry into hospitality. 

Mandatory Hotel Quarantine is technically still in force but no countries are designated to it. Digital Covid Certs are no longer be required from today, remaining only for international travel. 

The ICCL had this week written to CMO Dr Tony Holohan arguing that needing a Digital Covid Cert to get into a a pub was no longer proportionate or necessary. 

“It’s not clear to us at this stage what the purpose of the Covid cert system is, particularly in the Irish context where we have had such a successful vaccine take up,” Herrick told The Journal before yesterday’s announcement. 

Vaccines

Of course, while vaccine uptake in Ireland has been significant, there is a danger of complacency in the context of ongoing boosters or even yearly jabs. 

Part of the reason for Ireland’s successful uptake was relatively long and severe lockdowns here compared to other European nations, with people eager to do what they could to end the pandemic. 

But what if the carrot of lifting lockdowns or entering pubs is gone, will people still be so eager to get vaccinated? 

“It’s a good question, but we just don’t know what we’re going to be dealing with,” Lunn says. 

He points to the possibility, or even likelihood, of other variants and says that Omicron  at least showed that people are reactive when they need to be.  

“There’s been a really steady, strong increase of the proportion of people getting the booster. That’s partly happening just because people get more familiar with the idea, they get more comfortable with the idea and more people they know have got it, but it’s also just a response to the wave.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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