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Taoiseach casts doubt on idea of 'circuit break' lockdown to curb Covid-19 spread

The Tánaiste wrote in today’s Sunday Independent that numerous considerations must be made before opting for a second lockdown.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin was responding to speculation about a circuit break-type lockdown.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin was responding to speculation about a circuit break-type lockdown.

Updated Oct 11th 2020, 4:09 PM

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has cast doubt on speculation that the government may be considering a ‘circuit break’ type lockdown in an attempt to curb rising rates of Covid-19. 

His comments come after Tánaiste Leo Varadkar suggested that a “short, hard lockdown to knock the virus on the head again” – or a circuit break – could be considered and implemented by the government in the near future.

Writing in today’s Sunday Independent, the Fine Gael leader warned that any second lockdown would have far-reaching impacts that would all have to be considered before such an option was chosen. 

Speaking to RTÉ News today, Martin said that a circuit break was an “experimental” concept. 

“I’m not convinced that any such move would be a temporary move and I think we need to be clear with people on that. In other words, the idea of locking everything down for two weeks and being able to come back as normal, I’m not so sure that’s a runner,” he said. 

“But that needs to be teased out, if that’s what’s been articulated and debated,” he added. 

Earlier, Martin released a statement that suggested that the country still has time to avoid moving to tougher restrictions.

“If we all change our behaviours and work together we can make Level 3 work, protect lives and livelihoods, show that we can contain the virus and prevent its growth,” he said. 

“The coming weeks will be challenging but working with NPHET, we will respond firmly and appropriately.  We have the capacity and resources to come through this and we will.”

Last Sunday, the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) held an emergency meeting amid a rapidly deteriorating situation with Covid-19 and recommended the government move to Level 5. Under Level 5, the circumstances mirror the first lockdown earlier this year in many respects. 

The government, however, chose not to progress to Level 5 and opted for Level 3 instead, which in itself brings stricter restrictions than much of the country had been living under. Speaking on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live on Monday evening, Varadkar said he didn’t believe the recommendation from NPHET had been “thought through”.

Yesterday, 1,012 new cases were confirmed in Ireland. The 14-day incidence rate has increased by 39% to 150 per 100,000 in the past week. 

In a statement last night, chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said that he was “very worried about the numbers and how quickly they are deteriorating”. 

In the Sunday Independent today, the Tánaiste said that NPHET’s advice was taken seriously and that nobody was left in any doubt about the worsening trajectory.

“So when the politicians and senior civil servants sat around the table the next day we had to consider the bigger picture: what a sudden move to Level 5 would mean for jobs, livelihoods, mental health and family life,” he said.

“We were unanimous in our view that the country was not ready for a second lockdown and that we should move to Level 3 restrictions first, with the option of further restrictions if required.”

Varadkar then referenced a circuit breaker, as he also did last Monday on Claire Byrne Live.

The idea of a ‘circuit breaker’ is a short, sharp period of tightened restrictions intended to curb a rise in coronavirus cases. 

The temporary lockdown in New Zealand is seen by some as circuit break that gave contact tracers the time to get on top of case numbers.

In his letter recommending the move to Level 5, Dr Holohan didn’t specifically reference this concept but Varadkar again mentioned it in his piece today.

“This would represent a short, hard lockdown to knock the virus on the head again, and reduce case numbers to a manageable level. Similar to a second lockdown – but not as long.

It may well be needed at some point. No other country in Europe has tried this. It would be an experiment but it could work. In Israel is seems to be producing results.
I know some say that a circuit break could save Christmas. I am not so sure. The problem is that when you’re in full lockdown it’s difficult to get out of it. As we’ve already learned, reopening is a lot harder than locking down.

Varadkar said that it was important that a clear goal was in mind in terms of what such a lockdown would want to achieve in terms of case numbers and other important indicators.

He said the government had to ensure that support was in place for those who lose their jobs again as well as the businesses that would have to close. He also stressed the importance of having a plan to re-open the country again, as well as the impact on non-Covid healthcare and mental health. 

In closing, the Tánaiste said that the government is constantly grappling with these issues which will frame whatever decision is made going forward. He added that the government would work with NPHET and the HSE to make sure the right calls are made. 

Schools

Martin also said that keeping schools open remains “a key priority of government”.

Speaking to RTÉ’s This Week programme, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said a circuit breaker wasn’t something being considered at this time. 

“As we look at the figures this week, they’re not a reflection on whether we should be in a circuit breaker,” he said.

He added that efforts to implement a circuit breaker in Israel appear to be positive in suppressing the virus based on early indications. 

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WHO’s view on lockdowns

Varadkar’s comments come after a senior figure from the World Health Organization has suggested that lockdowns shouldn’t be a government’s “primary means of control of this virus”.

Speaking to The Spectator, WHO’s special envoy on Covid-19 Dr David Nabarro said: “We in the WHO do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus.

“The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance, your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted. But by and large, we’d rather not do it.”

Dr Nabarro pointed to other effects of the lockdowns, such as an increase in poverty in some parts of the world.

“Stop using lockdown as your primary control method,” he added.

Responding to these comments today on RTÉ’s Brendan O’Connor programme, the head of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit Dr Pete Lunn said that these kinds of “fixed positions” may not be useful in finding the solutions to specific problems each country will face with Covid-19.

“I think what he’s talking about on an international scale on lockdown is not the same as we’re talking about with lockdowns in Ireland,” Dr Lunn said. “We never actually locked down here to the degree that some other European countries did with the genuine definition of lockdown. People were still going out and we’re allowed to go out for exercise and so on as they weren’t in other European countries.

There’s more than one binary decision in play here. Right now, the situation we have at the moment is we have this virus which is out of control. It is growing, it is spreading, and we have to change our behaviour to deal with it. The question is, to what extent and how much? And how much damage can we cope with to do that? 

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Sean Murray

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