The economy versus healthcare? Why the Left must back NPHET

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In casting doubt over NPHET’s capacities, the Government has greatly strengthened the hand of anti-science opportunists. The Left should support the evidence, writes Éilis Ryan.

On Sunday 4th October, after a fortnight of considerable confusion and concern about the country’s continued rise in Covid-19 infections, NPHET released a statement recommending that Ireland enter into Phase 5 lockdown restrictions. 

The release of any public statement late on a Sunday night is unusual practice, and that in itself raised eyebrows. It was immediately clear that this had not (yet, at least) been endorsed by the Government, and by Monday afternoon the Government had distanced themselves from NPHET’s recommendation, disregarded their recommendation, and announced the entire country would enter into Phase 3 lockdown restrictions instead. The fact that such restrictions have been in place without having any impact in several parts of the country for some weeks, was not mentioned.

Then, late on Monday night, Tánaiste and media cadet Leo Varadkar launched an unprecedented attack on NPHET, stating that their recommendation had “not been thought through.”  

The division which has now occurred, between the medical experts employed to manage public health emergencies and (right-wing) elected officials, is likely to have a lasting and, almost certainly, negative effect on Ireland’s ability to tackle the pandemic. The planet is rife with conspiracists and opportunists pushing an anti-science agenda which constantly calls into question medical research and expertise. In casting doubt over NPHET’s capacities, the government’s actions have greatly strengthened this contingent’s hand.   

An unpopular position

Calls for a second, intensive, lockdown, are unlikely to create mass euphoria. Certainly, the impact of such a lockdown should not be underestimated. There are the obvious implications for unemployment and wages. The mental health implications of the lockdown should not be understated; many across the country already feel isolated from their communities and other supports. Waiting lists for services ranging from smear tests to driving tests have not caught up from the last lockdown.

It is precisely because of these challenges that it is crucial that the left speak clearly in favour of NPHET’s recommendations, and, in particular, of the need to rid Ireland of the Covid-19 virus, following such countries as Vietnam and New Zealand.

The Workers’ Party, People Before Profit and RISE have all backed NPHET’s calls for Phase 5 restrictions. But Labour’s Alan Kelly said the manner in which NPHET made their announcement was “actually scandalous,” and queried the proportionality of the Level 5 proposal. Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, while criticising the Tánaiste’s remarks about NPHET, simultaneously maintained that a move to Level 5 would have been “absolutely catastrophic.”   

The lack of support from major opposition parties shows a deference to business interests – who are the strongest lobby working against the Phase 5 restrictions – which is now liable to completely undermine Ireland’s public health strategy.

Economic red herrings

The primary argument put forward against Phase 5 lockdown is the impact on jobs and livelihoods.

But in reality, both in Ireland and globally, the assumption that “living with” rather than “eliminating” the virus could limit economic damage has not borne out in reality. According to the OECD, the New Zealand economy contracted by 12.2% in quarter 2 of 2020, compared with 11.8% in the Euro area, which imposed far less stringent travel and lockdown conditions. The ECB predicts a rebound of 8.4% for the Euro area in quarter 3, below the 10% partial recovery predicted by New Zealand economists. Meanwhile Norway and Finland experienced far smaller recessions than Sweden, in spite of imposing far more stringent lockdown conditions.

It is clear those countries which imposed “less rigid” lockdowns were not protected from the economic damage of Covid-19 – and are now in a worse position to recover, because of the greater likelihood of an uncontrolled resurgence of the virus.

We should not underestimate the economic damage and job losses which a Level 5 lockdown may entail. However, this is not something which partial lockdowns prevent. Enormous investment, much of it heavily subsidised by the state, took place to enable businesses to reopen after the spring lockdown in Ireland. Because reopening took place before the virus had been eliminated, however, those same businesses have, in many cases, been subsequently shut, fully or partially. 

Businesses have lobbied heavily against a zero Covid strategy, because it will, undoubtedly, hit their short-term bottom line. And that is what businesses care about.

But the short-term bottom line of business is not the same as the economic wellbeing of Ireland, or any other country. Other factors will determine whether Ireland recovers from this pandemic. The best way to do this is to invest public money – not in subsidies for private businesses – but in public industry, housing and infrastructure, all of which will create jobs and will, eventually, give returns to the state.

A fork in the road 

Although sharing the government’s unwillingness to endorse a “circuit break” Level 5 lockdown, Labour and Sinn Féin sought to differentiate themselves from the government position by emphasising shortcomings in the healthcare system, and the government’s failure to date to address these. Both parties’ leaders have called for extra funding to create additional ICU capacity, as an alternative to a Level 5 lockdown.

Both parties also know, without a doubt, that while this is a decent aim in and of itself, it will have no bearing in the immediate term. Even a centralised, efficient procurement system with a limitless budget would take months to procure sufficient space, equipment and staff to even marginally improve the capacity of Ireland’s healthcare system. Preventing a dramatic escalation of infection rates in Ireland needs to be done in days, not months.

In effect, then, the calls for ICU investment as an alternative to Level 5 restrictions are political theatre, not realistic policy proposals.  

At this point, it appears that two thirds of the general public are in fact in favour of greater restrictions, beyond the government’s Level 3. The reality is that the cross-party opposition to greater restrictions is not even driven by a fear of public opinion; it is driven by business lobbyists, pure and simple.

Without a decisive decision to take measures to eliminate Covid19 in Ireland in the coming weeks, we face a grim Christmas isolated from family and with none of the usual economic activity of the season. If current practice continues, that will be followed by another reopening, another lockdown, and so on and so on. It is naïve to imagine that this is somehow superior to a short, intensive lockdown followed by a real recovery characterised by public investment. This is what the evidence now recommends, and this is what the left should unequivocally support.