Like we had in the spring when the coronavirus took off the first time, we're back into a near-total lockdown, although the "L" word tends not to be used now. Instead, it is called Level Five restrictions, the top level in the framework for living with Covid introduced by the government a month ago.
*Editor's Note: This column first appeared in the October 21 edition of the Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.
Whatever the terminology, it amounts to almost a full lockdown. The only difference is that this time there are some minor adjustments, like the schools remaining open, less isolation for old folk, and some manufacturing and construction continuing.
But effectively the country is being shut down for six weeks. All non-essential businesses and stores have to close. Apart from essential services, people are to work from home if possible.
House visits are banned, apart from immediate family and carers. People are to stay within three miles of their home when out for exercise. Bars and restaurants will offer takeaway only.
This is a dramatic escalation in restrictions here, and it has been forced on the reluctant government by the rapidly accelerating spread of the virus in the last 10 days.
We've been on the less confining Level Three restrictions nationwide for the past few weeks and people had got used to that which was a problem because that familiarity bred a carelessness about the rules we were supposed to be following.
This was obvious over the past week or two in a growing casual attitude to mask-wearing and social gathering among a lot of people, not just the young but adults as well. You could see it in the haphazard social distancing when people were moving around, shopping, or sitting down for a coffee outside cafes. People from no more than two households were supposed to mix, even at a social distance, but this was not being observed.
The result of this carelessness was a relentless rise in the virus numbers here last week and growing alarm among both the public health experts and the government. On several days we saw daily records being broken for the number of new cases. It was clear that Level Three was not working effectively enough to suppress the spread of the virus.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), the body which advises the government here, had already called for a full lockdown three weeks ago, and this was watered down to Level Three by the government for economic reasons. But last week the deteriorating situation meant the NPHET recommendation could no longer be avoided.
So we are back in lockdown -- and the truth is we only have ourselves to blame. The perfunctory observance of the rules recently and the growing weariness with restrictions meant we were just not doing enough to keep the virus suppressed.
So now we have to do the hard yards again. And it's a six-week shutdown, which is going to seem interminable.
It could be shortened if the case numbers come down quickly. If not, everything will be shut until the end of November. Clearly, the government's aim is to get through it at this stage so that we can then open up again in December and people will be able to have a real Christmas.
But the cost of a six-week shutdown will be enormous, with initial estimates forecasting more than 100,000 jobs lost and over €1 billion in lost productivity and sales.
It's another hammer blow to jobs and business here, to the economy and to the state finances. It comes just a week after the budget for 2021 was announced revealing the biggest spending plan ever in the history of the state, most of it to deal with the virus. Now the question is whether the enormous financial package, all of it borrowed money, will be enough to see us through to the end of the Covid crisis.
The budget last week took everyone by surprise. Unlike the aftermath of the crash a decade ago, when tax revenues had collapsed and budgets were cut back to try to balance the books, this budget did the opposite. Instead of "austerity" cutbacks, the approach was expansionist, with money being poured into the economy to keep things moving until we get to the other side of the pandemic.
The scale of what is being done is unprecedented here. Spending by the state will go up by €18 billion, a colossal one-third hike on what state spending was in the past year.
And this is being done despite revenue being severely impacted by Covid. It means that we will have a deficit of €21 billion, a sad reversal since we had finally managed to get the state's finances into balance last year after years of trying. It is, of course, necessary and the right thing to do.
One interesting point to note is that the deficit could have been much worse -- it had been predicted to hit €30 billion. What has made the difference is the stellar performance of the multi-national companies here, mainly American, in the pharma, medical devices, and IT sectors.
The demand for their products has been unaffected by Covid. Even with their special tax deals here -- and that's a whole other conversation -- their tax bills in Ireland are enormous and are now enabling higher state spending than would otherwise be possible.
The budget included provision for massive supports over the coming year for companies hit by Covid and income support for people who lose their jobs. Plus there is additional provision for helping businesses if there is a no-deal Brexit. And there is a lot of counter-cyclical extra spending on construction, health care, education, etc.
All of that raised spirits here earlier last week when the budget was presented to the Dáil. As we said, the sheer scale of it was unexpected. For once, it left Sinn Féin and their far-left comrades in the Dail struggling to find something to complain about.
But the uplift in the national mood did not last long. As the Covid figures mounted and another lockdown loomed and then became a reality on Monday night when Taoiseach Micheál Martin addressed the nation on TV, it was replaced by frustration and exhaustion.
The pain of the shutdown will be relieved somewhat by the revised pandemic unemployment payments to those who lose their jobs temporarily and the wage subsidy scheme to support business. But there is a lot of uncertainty about how long this shutdown may go on and how effective it will be.
A big factor in that will be the degree of buy-in by the public. It would be good to be able to say that the whole country is behind it, but the reality is that the number of doubters is growing.
Not everyone is convinced a lockdown is the right approach. Will it do irreparable damage to the economy and in the end still not get rid of the virus? Will the virus just come back when things open up again?
There is also an increasing argument about the scale of the threat posed by the number of cases here, which is still relatively low. We learned last week that the median age of those who have died from Covid in Ireland is 83. This is slightly higher than the average age of death here in normal times which indicates that it is primarily the very old here who are being killed by the disease.
Another point about the Covid death toll figures here was raised by the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA), an independent body with legal powers that monitors health care in Ireland. HIQA estimated that close to a third of the deaths here so far among people with the virus were due predominantly to other causes. Yet they are included in the Covid death figures.
So of the 1,852 total Covid deaths in Ireland since the pandemic arrived (the figure on Monday night), between 500 and 600 were due predominantly to other causes rather than to Covid. This means that the real figure for Covid deaths since the pandemic arrived here seven months ago is just over 1,000, an infinitesimal number out of a population of five million.
None of this negates the real fear about what could happen if the virus were to get completely out of control here. But it does make you wonder about the wisdom of going into total lockdown and shutting the economy. There may be less costly ways of protecting those most at risk (like the old and the obese) than targeting measures at the entire population.
That is not an argument that is accepted by our health experts or the government here, however. So it's lockdown for six weeks from midnight on Wednesday of this week.