by Frank Schnittger
Wed Jul 8th, 2020 at 07:30:58 AM EST
The Irish Times has published an edited version of my letter on Covid-19 and travelling on foreign holidays. The context of the letter is an increasingly polarised debate on-line about the merits of doing so. For the past couple of weeks Ireland, north and south, has been on the cusp of eliminating the virus completely, with only a handful of deaths and between 4 and 24 new cases per day. Some days have seen no deaths at all, and an increasing proportion of new cases have been related to foreign travel.
Covid-19 and overseas holidays
Dr Jack Lambert has really served to polarise the debate about foreign travel in his piece "Telling people not to travel overseas on holiday is wrong-headed" (Opinion & Analysis, July 7th).
Judging by the comments in your online edition, I'm afraid we're developing a left versus right divide on the foreign holiday travel question. The right is arguing for travel on the grounds of freedom of choice, personal responsibility, mental health, and the need for the economy to restart.
The left is arguing on the grounds of the precautionary principle, community responsibilities, and holding out the hope of eliminating the virus in Ireland completely.
Older people, who might otherwise be in the right-wing camp, are siding with the left on this occasion. Public-sector workers, whose livelihoods are less at risk, also tend to the more left-wing view.
The argument is couched in terms of individualism versus collectivism, personal freedom against social responsibility, and full economic recovery versus care for the elderly and public health.
But it's also about how you perceive risk.
Of course, as Dr Lambert argues, the chances are that an individual family going on their holidays abroad, observing all the precautions, will not contract or spread the virus. But how many will do so in the alcoholic haze that often accompanies a sunshine holiday?
If hundreds of thousands of people flock to their sunshine holiday destinations as usual, it only takes a 1 per cent chance of them contracting the disease for thousands of new infections to be imported into Ireland.
This isn't about individuals acting responsibly, but about the cumulative effects of mass changes in social behaviour.
The risk of infection increases exponentially the larger the crowd. With large numbers, even small risks can have significant consequences at a societal level.
Those who are most concerned about restarting the Irish economy should be the first to advocate for a holiday at home.
We may be on the cusp of eliminating the virus in Ireland completely. Let's finish the job of eliminating the virus here and then all discussion of freedoms within Ireland will become moot. - Yours, etc,
With the lock-down in the process of being wound down, the fear is that all this progress will be lost. Ireland has been one of the most severely effected countries, with 353 deaths/million people putting us in the top ten most impacted countries in the world, although a recent report stated that that figure was inflated by the inclusion of "probable and possible" deaths due to covid-19.
In that context, getting the figures down to near zero is a considerable achievement, but one which is increasingly being taken for granted. Business and right wing commentators are increasingly calling for remaining restrictions to be abandoned as being over-done and an unconscionable infringement of "freedom of choice, personal responsibility, mental health, and the need for the economy to restart."
It doesn't help when their cause is supported by a leading medic. Dr Jack Lambert is professor of medicine and infectious diseases, at the Mater hospital and UCD School of Medicine in Dublin.
Apparently a foreign holiday is now virtually a human right, essential for our mental health, and discouraging them is another case of the nanny state going mad. To be clear, the government is about to publish a "green list" of countries which have effectively suppressed the virus, where travel should be low or risk free, and to which "air corridors" should be established to facilitate foreign travel.
Foreign travel has never actually been banned in Ireland, just strongly discouraged, with passengers on arrival having to fill out a personal locator form and "self-isolate" for two weeks - a requirement which is not actually policed. This has been sufficient to reduce airport traffic by over 90% although it is now beginning to rise again, and Ryanair chief, Michael O'Leary, has been loud in his condemnation of remaining restrictions.
The economy is slowly getting back to "normal" although the tourism and travel industries have been decimated. These account for c. 4% of GDP and 8% of employment so the impact is significant if not catastrophic. However my point is that much of this damage can be undone if Irish holidaymakers holiday at home this year and it is contradictory for right wing/business commentators to call both for a full re-starting of the economy and for people to go on foreign holidays at the same time.
It's not as if foreign tourists are queueing up to come back into the country in any case. Global tourism has been devastated, and the most valued high spending tourists from the USA are unlikely to be travelling in large numbers in any case, with Covid-19 currently rife in their country. Domestic tourism can make up for most of this loss of business, although perhaps not at the very high end where prices can be eye-watering.
Ireland has always maintained a free travel area with the UK partly to facilitate the many family connection with the emigrant Irish population there and to keep the border with N. Ireland open. This has meant we are at continuing risk of re-infection from Britain where the incidence of Covid-19 is much higher. It has also prevented us from joining the Schengen Agreement and means we have not been part of the recent re-opening of Schengen borders.
Business travel has also been much reduced with video-conferencing and home working becoming the norm and likely to continue for many months if not years to come. I do not see this as a huge impediment to economic recovery especially in the pharmaceutical, medtech, ICT and fintech industries which have been the main drivers of Irish economic growth.
The Irish Times didn't publish parts of my letter which suggested mandatory testing of incoming passengers from high risk zones and charging them for the cost of the test as a means of discouraging such travel. Right wing and business commenters calling for an end to any such restriction are high in their praise of economic freedoms and personal responsibility, but slow to accept the social and healthcare costs of doing so.
The Irish Times also didn't publish my question: "How do you take personal responsibility for infecting others after the event?" Personal responsibility, it seems, starts and ends with looking after yourself - until you need free hospital treatment where you also put a lot of staff and other patients at risk. A third of Irish Covid-19 cases have been in healthcare workers who caught the disease at work, and many others have been patients who were in hospital for other reasons.
Freedom and personal responsibility are usually little more than codewords for doing as you please and damn the consequences for everyone else. The USA, Brazil and UK, in particular, are paying a heavy price for putting that ideology at the forefront of their politics. I'm hoping the same won't happen in Ireland. So far we have been winning the argument.