Listening to Michael McGrath (FF Finance) this morning he was asked whether his party, if in government, would make face masks mandatory in enclosed spaces such as transport and shops. His answer was interesting. He said that his thinking is that if the key influencers including medical experts, government and media got behind the idea, then just as the public has overwhelmingly supported and complied with the Covid19 restrictions, mask wearing would quickly become the norm.
McGrath made the point that, there will always be a small number of people that simply cannot wear masks for a variety of reasons including their age or specific medical conditions. And we should avoid stigmatising individuals. In this short conversation McGrath summarised the differences and opportunity for Ireland – that without talking about green jerseys as a nation we have proven we can collectively act in the national interest. There will always be a small minority who don’t, but the experience of the past two months is that the overwhelming majority can act in the national interest.
It is perhaps easy to look at New Zealand and observe that they do the same. An island state with similar size of population they have, through national unity of purpose, effectively killed the virus and are on a course to establish a bubble comprising New Zealand and Australia. Unfortunately, Ireland can never copy New Zealand. Our island has a porous international border and will never be able to close that, or establish a virtual bubble with the North because they are governed by a different national entity. There is also a very high level of dependency upon international tourism and trade and keeping borders open is going to be an economic necessity.
The answer for the Republic of Ireland to achieve something like normality is almost certainly to establish an effective automated contact tracing system. If the tracing system is working well and is downloaded and used by a high proportion of the population, any outbreak of the virus would be rapidly identified and managed. Ireland has made some good decisions in this area, choosing to implement the Apple/Google API which is a distributed architecture that protects individual privacy. Unfortunately, there are various actors who are already briefing against the app, even though they clearly don’t understand the architecture. I note today that Iceland, another small country like us, who have moved rapidly to implement an app, report they only have 40% of the population using the app and have pretty much discounted it as a potential game changer. For Ireland, because of our open borders, the app must be the game changer. It is the only way that we will achieve anything like normality in the next few months and through 2021 as we wait for a possible vaccine.
Returning to Michael McGrath’s comments, we need to see the use of the app in a similar way to the use of masks in enclosed public spaces. We need to see at least 80% uptake not just of the app but also in individuals self-isolating when they have been in close proximity to a confirmed case for 15 minutes. This will require a concerted effort by the key influencers to explain why this is another area where we need a huge effort and compliance by the entire population. Perhaps we should start by explaining that the contact tracing app is actually just one key component in our virus suppression system. The system is so much more than the technology, it’s the buy-in of the entire population in the process that starts when an individual believes and reports that they have symptoms through to managing the isolation of their contacts and the prevention of outbreaks.
This will need, just like over the last two months, everyone to put their shoulders to the wheel. But the prize is a return to normality.