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Governments must plan how we will return to normal as more people are vaccinated


At the height of the first wave of the Covid crisis in April last year it was clear that huge economic disruption was inevitable.

The duration of the turndown was hard to predict because things could only return to normal when there was a wide deployment of vaccines, the timescale for which was extremely uncertain.

As it turned out, the development and initial deployment of vaccines has been more rapid than could have been hoped for nine months ago.

The costs of the pandemic in terms of human life are now sadly at a peak. However, simultaneously the new vaccines, the source of hope for the future, are being deployed, and most of the population of Ireland and of Europe may be inoculated by early autumn.

In the meantime the surge in cases and the huge pressure on the health service continues, and it means that the serious lockdown will persist for some time to come. Nobody can be certain as to how soon we can begin to relax these stringent measures.

As the momentum of the rollout of the vaccines grows, there will inevitably be controversies about priorities for access to vaccines and about the overall management of the programme. However, these controversies may well fade out as the bulk of the population is vaccinated.

Yet our Government and those across Europe also rapidly need to develop plans for how we will return to normal as an increasing proportion of the population is vaccinated.

By the end of March it is likely that most of those over-70 will have been vaccinated in Ireland. Does this mean that the rules restricting travel, shopping and congregating will no longer apply to them?

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Will the test for foreign travel or drinking in a pub be whether one has grey hair?

This issue of who the rules apply to and how rules are adjusted to take account of increasing numbers of people who are vaccinated will raise difficult choices.

Having promised that vaccination will free us, it could pose major problems to tell large numbers of people who have been vaccinated that they cannot return to normal life for the moment.

Carriers

If people don’t see it making their life easier it could seriously reduce the incentive for people to take the vaccine, although that is essential if we are to bring the virus under control.

While the vaccines will stop us getting seriously ill, it is not yet clear whether they will prevent us being carriers. This urgently needs to be clarified as it will affect the speed with which we can return to normal.

As more people are vaccinated, people may weaken their commitment to public health behaviours. Most people now accept that public health rules protect our fellow citizens and ourselves individually. However, this logic may not apply to those who have been vaccinated.

If life is relaxed for the vaccinated but not others it could be seen as very unfair – planes filling up with over-70s holiday-makers while young people cannot meet each other in or out of school.

Over-70s are being prioritised for vaccination to protect their health, not so that they can party.

In addition, there could be serious enforcement issues. Many people are rightly upset if they see someone in a supermarket not wearing a mask. For that reason it seems appropriate to continue to require vaccinated people to wear masks in such settings for the foreseeable future, demonstrating solidarity with those not yet vaccinated.

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Probably the best approach is to promise some easing for vaccinated people as we approach summer. But it will be important to maintain social solidarity between those who are at the back of the queue and those who are high up the vaccination priority list.

Traditional exam

As more abundant vaccine supplies become available in the spring, in my view Leaving Cert students and their teachers should be in line for jabs to enable the traditional exam to go ahead with certainty.

While it may not be popular, Ministers and officials who need to represent us abroad should also have priority so that we can influence policy formation in the EU.

The Greek government is proposing an EU-wide certificate of vaccination which could be used to verify which travellers are safe. It makes a lot of sense to have a properly-verified international vaccine passport. I think for most people the benefit of such a card would outweigh any GDPR concerns, just like most of us oldies are happy to have our personal details on our free travel cards.



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