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Paul Murphy: It's time to break the cycle of lockdowns and go for zero Covid in Ireland

The RISE TD argues that now is the time for an overhaul of our approach to Covid-19 so we can make this lockdown the last.

Paul Murphy

WE HAVE THE worst rate of Covid infection in the entire world. Hundreds of people have tragically already died in the third surge, and we can only expect that hundreds more will die in the coming weeks.

We don’t yet know how many people have ‘long Covid’ and may suffer for months. All of this was avoidable if the public health advice had been followed all along.

The government’s Covid strategy has led to a doom-loop of lockdowns. The alternative to the failed ‘Living With Covid’ plan is following the advice of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group.

That means working to eliminate community transmission, i.e. cases of unknown origin while investing properly in Find Test Trace Isolate and Support infrastructure to quickly deal with any outbreaks. 

Susan Michie from University College London summed up the essence of a Zero Covid approach at the Covid Committee: 

I could use the analogy of fires. In Ireland, like the United Kingdom, there is a zero fire policy, which means we want no fires and we take every measure we can to ensure, as much as we can, that there are no fires. However, we know fires will occasionally break out and we have systems in place to jump on those fires quickly…

Variations of this approach have been implemented in Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Vietnam and other countries. Life has largely returned to normal in those countries – people go to concerts, sports events and socialise. Occasional outbreaks occur – but they are quickly tackled. 

The international evidence suggests that this approach is not only far less damaging to people’s mental health, but also far less damaging to the economy. One sharp lockdown, eliminating community transmission, followed by a re-opening is unsurprisingly much less damaging than a cycle of recurring lockdowns.

What would a Zero Covid strategy look like? 

1. Ban non-essential travel into Ireland and implement a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for those who must travel here. Not only has it been called for by NPHET, but it has also been a crucial part of the strategy of those countries which achieved elimination of community transmission because it enables the virus to be kept out. With the emergence of multiple new strains of the virus, it is even more vital.

This mandatory quarantine should be introduced with all the necessary safeguards to protect civil liberties. The state should provide free quarantine facilities for all who need them, and provide smart monitoring devices to allow people to quarantine safely at home.

2. Stop allowing companies to undermine the current lockdown. The more effective this lockdown is, the shorter it will be. The list of ‘essential’ services exempted currently is far wider than that in the first lockdown.

Services like the NCT test centres, which closed in March 2020, have stayed open now. Large parts of the construction industry remain open, with some companies utilising wide loopholes to remain open.

Staff who have contacted the Health and Safety Authority after their employer refused to allow them to work from home have been informed that it is at the employer’s discretion. All of this must be stopped. The guidelines must be tightened and the HSA empowered and resourced to catch and fine bosses breaking the rule.

3. Resist the beat of the lobbying drums when they re-commence in a couple of weeks. The narrative is already predictable – ‘people have had enough, they deserve a break, we should begin to lift the restrictions.’ It is undoubtedly true that people are fed up with this lockdown. But we should hold our nerve, eliminate community transmission, and make this the last lockdown.

In the summer, when the lockdown was eased, we were down to single-digit case numbers on a daily basis. A few more weeks and we could have eliminated community transmission and avoided the second and third lockdown. That mistake must not be repeated.

What about the North?

The border with the North is being used by the government as an excuse to hide behind. 

Even without any agreement with the Northern Executive, a Zero Covid strategy is implementable in the South. A ‘Green Zone strategy’ should be put into effect, based on dividing the country into boundaries which take account of commuting patterns. Travel between zones should be restricted.

As zones achieve the elimination of community transmission, these Green Zones can be linked to each other. Border counties would be treated similarly to any other zone, with the addition of so-called ‘travel bubbles’ which could stretch across the border.

Of course, it would be preferable and more effective if the Northern Executive had a similar approach. Right now, the UK is beginning to implement a mandatory quarantine requirement. This is therefore a good time to adopt Zero Covid as a strategy in the South and advocate for joint action across the island. 

Socialist policies

To maximise the effectiveness of a Zero Covid approach, it should be combined with socialist policies, which put public health before short-term private profit.

Firstly, as the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has called for, the private hospitals should be immediately requisitioned and brought into the public health service to give us the capacity we need. The idea that private hospitals should be able to profit from this pandemic is intolerable.

Secondly, we should support the proposal from South Africa and India to suspend the TRIPS agreement at the WTO. This would allow the production of generic vaccines at much cheaper prices worldwide. Without this ‘People’s Vaccine’, 90% of people in low-income countries will not be vaccinated in 2021.

Not only is this deeply immoral, but it also poses a public health threat to the entire world – with more potential for dangerous virus mutations.

Thirdly, we need full supports to allow people to survive through this lockdown. A Pandemic Unemployment Payment of at least €350 a week should be provided to all who are out of work as a consequence of Covid.

The full ban on evictions should be restored. Parents forced to stay out of work to look after children should receive parental leave on full pay and emergency funding should be made available to expand domestic violence and abuse refuges. Sick pay on 100% of wages must be immediately introduced for all workers so they can afford to self-isolate.

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Now is the time

For a long time, People Before Profit and RISE were alone in the Dáil in pushing the Zero Covid agenda.

We published detailed policy documents and articles and called for it repeatedly while the government dismissed it in the same breath as the disastrous ‘herd immunity’ strategy.

The fact that the Social Democrats have now come on board with Zero Covid is very welcome. Even Sinn Féin, which has gone along with the government every time they departed from NPHET advice, has now said that they support many of the measures contained in the Zero Covid policy.

It is an indication of the shifting moods in society. People are absolutely fed up with the strategy of rolling lockdowns and want an alternative. If trade unions and opposition parties support a Zero Covid plan, massive pressure can be brought to bear on the government to implement it.

Paul Murphy is a RISE TD for Dublin South-West, part of the Solidarity – People Before Profit grouping in the Dáil.

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