Living with Covid has failed, it’s time to try living without it

25 Jan 2021

Image: © London Photo/

When your strategy has brought you to the worst point in your management of a crisis, it’s time to reconsider, writes Elaine Burke.

The Irish Government’s ‘Living with Covid’ pandemic strategy was met with scepticism from some in the science community when it was first revealed in September 2020. At that point, the call for a zero-Covid strategy had been coming for almost half a year, but it was ignored.

Chief among those calling for a zero-Covid approach is the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group for Covid-19 (ISAG). This multidisciplinary group of scientists, academics and researchers is independent of Government. Since being founded in June last year, its members have been advocating for an elimination strategy for Covid-19 in Ireland.

This is contrary to what the Government’s own scientific advisory panel has advised to date. The National Public Health Emergency Team for Covid-19 (NPHET) has echoed the Government’s argument that zero-Covid is not possible in the Republic of Ireland due to the UK border with Northern Ireland.

This is fair to say, of course. Ireland is not an island nation and so does not have the luxury of behaving like those that have successfully deployed zero-Covid strategies, such as Australia and New Zealand. However, NPHET’s argument against a zero-Covid strategy is a political one. It is not for a panel of scientists and clinicians to do the work of making zero-Covid possible through North-South cooperation – that is the job of the Government.

Last year, excuses were made and they were acceptable under the circumstances of a situation the whole world was learning to come to terms with. But a year into the global pandemic and there are no more excuses for poor choices. The world’s shining examples of pandemic control, such as New Zealand, have provided a blueprint others can at least attempt to follow. Not to mention that the World Health Organization has consistently presented rolling lockdowns as a last-resort measure, not the first, and only, response to this crisis.

We’ve had almost a year to get a better handle on testing and tracing. Almost a year to negotiate cross-border measures to better control the virus. And now we find ourselves in the worst situation we have ever been, and our country’s leader is not even hopeful of much better.

Speaking to Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ Radio 1 on Saturday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD, said “the case numbers have to be … in the hundreds, if not 100 to 200, that low” before restrictions in this country could be eased. I don’t think anyone needs to be told that hundreds of daily recorded cases is not a low number.

Not only would hundreds of a day cases keep us at crisis levels, this number of cases in 2021 may be more dangerous than last year thanks to the emergence of new, more virulent strains.

Data journalist Mona Chalabi illustrated perfectly the dangers of a virus that is no more deadly but significantly more infectious. A more virulent strain leads to more cases, which means more deaths. It’s simple mathematics.


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The fact is that ‘Living with Covid’ means dying with the virus, too. The Government’s strategy has been tried, tested and proved an abject failure. Poor choices, such as reopening many businesses right before the Christmas period, exacerbated the problem. But it’s likely we were going to be trapped in this cycle of lockdowns either way, seeing as the Government has hardly tried any other solutions.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland on Friday, Prof James McInerney, head of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Nottingham, sounded half embarrassed in having to state the absolute obvious for Ireland’s prospects in 2021. “It seems obvious that you’ve got to take a New Zealand strategy, or else you’re going to be in and out of lockdown for the rest of the year and maybe into 2022,” he told host Mary Wilson.

This should be our goal. Not case numbers in the hundreds, followed by reopening, resurging illness, wash and repeat. If that’s our target, this year is going to be far worse than the last.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.