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Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘We had everything in our favor’: Ireland is a test case on how NOT to battle COVID-19 — senior government figures resign

DUBLIN — Do as I say, not as I do.

That appears to be the message from some senior government figures in Ireland who have told the public not to congregate in crowds, especially indoors, and to avoid traveling abroad for purposes other than emergencies or essential work reasons.

Minister for Agriculture Dara Calleary and deputy chairperson of the Senate Jerry Buttimer resigned Friday morning after their attendance at an 80-person golf-society dinner, which directly contravened government guidelines on social distancing.

The event took place one day after the government issued stricter guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19, capping outdoor private gatherings at 15 people and limiting indoor events to six people, unless an exemption was granted by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The dinner was held at a hotel in County Galway, in the west of Ireland, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Oireachtas Golf Society. “Oireachtas” is Gaelic for Irish Parliament, which comprises Dáil Éireann (the lower house) and Seanad Éireann (the upper house) and the Oireachtas Committees.

‘Small-town thinking like this has been a major slap for me, and many like me, who have observed all of the restrictions, who didn’t hug their parents or see their parents for months.’

— Breffni Burke, a public-relations consultant

Ireland’s European Union commissioner Phil Hogan and Supreme Court justice and former attorney general Séamus Wolfe also attended the Aug. 19 dinner. The presence of senior figures in politics and law has angered people who have lost income and jobs during the pandemic.

“People all over the country have made very difficult personal sacrifices in their family lives and in their business to comply with COVID regulations,” Calleary, the now-former Minister for Agriculture, said before his resignation. “This event should not have gone ahead in the manner it did.”

His actions were met with anger and disappointment. After his resignation, Calleary told Irish radio Friday: “Specifically in my letter of resignation I acknowledged front line workers and their families and public-health workers, the damage I’ve done to their work, unintentionally.”

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin told state broadcaster RTÉ Friday: “I think he showed leadership and accountability above all to the people by resigning.” But Mary Lou McDonald, leader of the opposition Sinn Féin party told RTÉ: “This is not a country club. It is a parliament.”

“Small-town thinking like this has been a major slap for me, and many like me, who have observed all of the restrictions, who didn’t hug their parents or see their parents for months,” Breffni Burke, a public-relations consultant, said. “There was too much emphasis on business over health.”

“We had everything in our favor at the beginning of this because we are an island. It would have taken nothing to enforce travel bans,” she said. “We didn’t take it. There are too many lobby groups and too many commercial interests. The government we have is trying to please everybody.”

“You can’t please anybody and keep a pandemic at bay,” Burke added. “There’s a movement in the medical community called “Zero COVID” and they are calling for a lockdown, but that won’t be popular. A good government will make unpopular decisions for the greater good of society.”

Jack McDermot, a Dublin-baed marketing and strategy consultant, said communication and messaging are important in this climate. “Done well from the top, it instills confidence and solidarity in the population,” he said. “Executed badly, it leads to confusion, anger and resentment.”

Writing in the Irish Times, Dr. Jack Lambert, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University College Dublin School of Medicine, said, “Elimination of coronavirus in Ireland is a fantasy. It is a dream that will not be achieved in the immediate future.”

He said comparisons between New Zealand and Ireland should stop: “There are calls for Ireland to adopt a New Zealand model, but New Zealand is not a part of the European Union, and it does not share a common border with Northern Ireland. This model will not work for Ireland.”

Until last week, New Zealand had reported no new cases for 102 days. Ireland is a country on the northwest periphery of Europe, while New Zealand is located off the southeastern coast of Australia. Like the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand has a population of 4.9 million.

But Ireland shares a land border with the U.K. province of Northern Ireland, and people from there (including travelers from other countries who travel through Northern Ireland) are not required to quarantine for 14 days if they cross into the Republic from the six counties in the U.K. province.

Dispatches from a pandemic: Ireland is a nation of saints, scholars and the status quo.

When the sun shines in Ireland, it’s not unusual to hear someone say, ‘You could be in Italy right now.’ (Photo: Quentin Fottrell.)

Johns Hopkins University ranks Ireland at No. 16 in the world on a list of COVID-related deaths per capita: 36.6 per 100,000 with a case-fatality rate of 6.4%, versus 0.45 per 100,000 and 1.3% in New Zealand, and 53.3 per 100,000 and case-fatality rate of 3.1% in the U.S.

Ireland confirmed 79 new COVID cases on Friday and 136 on Thursday, bringing the total case count to 27,775, but no further deaths, leaving the total number of deaths at 1,776. In comparison, New Zealand has just 1,665 cases and 22 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.

“We have already wasted too much time by comparing ourselves to New Zealand,” Lambert wrote. “We are interdependent on the E.U. and the U.K. and we need to work together, not in isolation. We need to allow non-E.U. countries with a good coronavirus record to travel in and out of Ireland.”

“We need to have a robust screening plan at the airports and our borders which include selective coronavirus testing,” he added. “We need to collectively work out an Irish plan that permits us to safely move forward. Our medical and economic health are interdependent.”

‘We need, as a country, for the next couple of weeks to massively cut down the level of congregation that we are engaged in to get this virus suppressed again.’

— Dr. Ronan Glynn, Ireland’s acting chief medical officer

It’s not the first COVID-related political embarrassment here. Michael Cawley, the chairman of the state tourism board who served as the deputy chief executive of Irish airline Ryanair
resigned last week from his job after taking a vacation to Italy.

News that the chairman of Fáilte Ireland would take such a trip was greeted with a mixture of disbelief and bemusement among the public and lawmakers alike. Cawley is listed as a member of the board of directors of no-frills Ryanair.

His vacation was all the more surprising given that Fáilte Ireland had been spearheading a major campaign to convince Irish people to avoid flying overseas in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and to instead vacation at home and support local businesses.

McDermot said the Irish government was wrong-footed by the twin concepts of travel advisories and the “green list” — the list of countries where people could return from without quarantining for 14 days. “Micheál Martin just couldn’t seem to delineate this for people. And it was his job to do it.”

“The number of deaths in nursing homes here is a disaster,” he added. “I do feel sympathy for the government, the Health Service Executive and nursing home management. It shouldn’t have happened. Nursing homes, like other key elements of the health system, are overstretched.”

Ireland has recorded one of the highest rates of COVID-related nursing-home deaths in the world. Some 62% of fatalities from the virus occurred in nursing homes, a rate exceeded only by Canada, leading doctors to call on the government for earlier and stricter social-distancing guidelines.

The Irish government only introduced a mandatory face-mask policy in stores earlier this month, four months after the World Health Organization and other international health authorities changed their official policy on face masks to recommend people wear them to help stop the spread of the virus.

Health professionals have called for tougher actions. “We need, as a country, for the next couple of weeks to massively cut down the level of congregation that we are engaged in to get this virus suppressed again,” Dr. Ronan Glynn, Ireland’s acting chief medical officer, said Thursday.

Burke agrees: “The current shenanigans have demonstrated we have a micro-thinking government. This is always going to be this kind of problem in Ireland. Everyone is always looking after their own backyard and, in this latest case, they were looking after the Oireachtas Golf Society.”

“New Zealand should be applauded of how the model can be done effectively and well. We are an island. I can still go to Dublin Airport and get on a flight anywhere,” she said. “Irish people do not like being told that they can’t do something, even something as simple as wearing a mask.”

“Now we are in a state of half-undone, and no one is happy,” Burke added. “We all want to return to our normal lives, but the only way to do this is together, and we need a firm hand at the wheel. There are amazing people in this country, like Ronan Glynn, listen to them, they care.”

This article is part of a MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from a pandemic.’

Quentin Fottrell, a native of Ireland, writes that senior government figures have been flouting the official rules to keep the coronavirus pandemic at bay.

Coronavirus update: COVID-19 has now killed at least 795,383 people worldwide. As of Friday, the U.S. has the world’s highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases (5,600,107) and deaths (174,761). Worldwide, confirmed cases are now at 22,780,595.

The Dow Jones Industrial Index
the S&P 500

and the Nasdaq Composite

were all down Friday as investors await progress on a vaccine and Fed minutes released this week urged Congress for more pandemic aid.

More on the pandemic: If every American started wearing a face mask today, this is how many lives could be saved

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