Facing a spike in coronavirus cases, the Irish government has stepped up restrictions to mitigate the spread of the virus while rejecting calls from its own medical advisers to institute a four-week lockdown, saying such a move would cause irreparable damage to the country’s economy.
While the government’s pandemic advisory panel had recommended the country move back to Level 5, the highest in its pandemic management system, Prime Minister Micheál Martin said the country would not take on an extensive lockdown for the sake of protecting businesses still reeling from the country’s spring lockdown.
“We have decided at this stage not to move to a more comprehensive lockdown,” Martin said in an address on state broadcaster RTÉ on Monday.
“It’s about protecting lives and livelihoods. We can’t do one without the other,” he said.
Business leaders have warned that the country’s economy can not cope with a second shutdown similar to the one enforced in mid-March and later eased in May. A Level 5 lockdown would shut down everything but essential services and schools.
As cases have only continued to grow in Ireland, with more than 200 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 and 518 cases confirmed on Monday, medical experts warned that the high-level lockdown would be “the only opportunity to get this disease back under control while keeping schools open.”
In Ireland, state-funded hospitals have only lower capacity to handle the virus compared to EU norms. The team of experts, led by chief medical officer Tony Holohan, cautioned that a Level 5 lockdown was inevitable with the unrelenting day-to-day growth in cases the country has seen since July.
“It is vital that we do everything in our power now to arrest the current trajectory nationally,” Holohan said. He called on the public to keep social contacts “to minimum levels.”
After receiving the team’s recommendation, Martin raised restrictions one spot to a Level 3, marking the first time the Irish government has not followed its medical advisers’ advice.
Level 3 restrictions include bans on most social gatherings, including Church services, which are to be held online. All amateur sports events will be canceled and Weddings and funerals will be restricted to 25 people. It does, however, keep all retail outlets open.
A second Level 5 lockdown would further endanger state finances, which are already on track to record a deficit topping €20 billion — nearly $23.6 billion, economists warned.
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will release a 2021 budget next week based on the prospect of avoiding a second lockdown.
The Level 3 lockdown means more than 4,000 pubs outside of Dublin will be allowed to stay open while restaurants can continue serving customers, though only outdoors. The Restaurants Association of Ireland predicts that a Level 5 lockdown would have caused 180,000 job losses in the industry.
The prime minister called on citizens with a “lax attitude” toward the virus to refocus attention on mitigating its spread as the country battles a growing anti-mask movement, with protesters last weekend demonstrating on Grafton Street, one of Dublin’s most bustling shopping areas.
“The virus is spreading because people are allowing it to spread,” he said.