The Irish Times take on maintaining essential services

As Covid-19 numbers reach record highs, it becomes difficult to maintain essential services and open as many businesses as possible. This has led the government to ask Nphet to review the rules governing close contact and the period of isolation they must observe. These rules were tightened before Christmas, but they should now be reviewed, while ensuring that public health is safeguarded.

Adjusting isolation requirements is not straightforward – many countries do this, but there is no common approach. Here there is an exemption for asymptomatic healthcare workers who test negative, although Education Minister Norma Foley has said she is not considering a similar scheme for teachers.

Nphet will look at the options, but it would appear that consideration should be given to changing the rules for people who are fully vaccinated, including booster vaccination, who do not have symptoms and who test negative for ‘antigen. Given the widespread deployment of the booster program, this should have a significant impact on absenteeism. Shortening the isolation period for those who have not had a booster – currently 10 days – may also be appropriate.

Unions urge caution and the ICTU’s call to convene the Covid-19 Stakeholder Forum, which includes representatives from all major sectors, is appropriate. But there is a real risk that essential services and businesses will have to severely restrict their operations over the next few weeks and thought needs to be given to how to address this, while keeping employees safe.

As with so much about Covid-19 policy, there are no ‘right’ answers and it is necessary to keep the rules and advice under review. Changes to travel rules also seem reasonable, given the high level of infection circulating here. The broader issue of reopening offices and adjusting guidance more generally as Omicron shrinks will provide tougher calls. In doing so, we must learn from experience – and previous mistakes – and realize that vaccination alone will not be enough to control the virus for the foreseeable future.

Michelle J. Kelley