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It is hard to be positive. January is never the easiest month at the best of times. And these are not the best of times. A year since Covid-19 first emerged we are still in the midst of a global pandemic unprecedented in recent memory. Ireland’s rates of infection, which were relatively low by international comparisons at the start of December, quickly became among the highest in the world after lockdown restrictions were relaxed over the Christmas period.
Even before 2020 ended, another national lockdown was imposed to control the third wave of Covid-19. This wave has been the worst to date, with the more transmittable UK variant of the virus contributing to the staggering nature of the surge.
Hospitals and health services have come under the most fearsome pressure. The number of people hospitalised with Covid-19 passed 2,000 on Monday 18 January for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. In another unwanted first, the number of people being treated in intensive care units reached 200. Deaths caused by the virus have sharply risen.
As a result of this pressure, the HSE has had to utilise critical surge capacity, which did not occur during the previous waves. Staff absenteeism among healthcare staff, as a result of contracting Covid-19 or being a close contact, has made the challenge facing hospitals even more difficult. So yes, there is not a lot to be positive about.
At the same time, of course, there is hope on the horizon. The recently initiated national vaccination programme means that the strange reality of near-constant restrictions and lockdowns we have endured over the past year could be consigned to the past. The almost daily photographs of nursing home residents and healthcare workers receiving their vaccine are snapshots of a better future.
However, the roll-out of the vaccination programme has come with its own anxiety. GPs were frustrated over a lack of information as to when they would get vaccinated. Healthcare workers at Nenagh General Hospital were similarly critical about vaccination delays.
There was a furore around family members of staff in two Dublin maternity hospitals receiving vaccinations (the rationale for this situation was the doses would otherwise have been discarded). Patient groups are also concerned about inconsistencies in the priority lists for the vaccines.
These grievances were and are entirely legitimate. They deserve to be taken seriously. The Government and health service should continue to be scrutinised as to how the roll-out is proceeding. Nor should it be forgotten that the decision to reopen the country before Christmas contributed to the severity of this third Covid-19 wave.
But it also should be recognised that the vaccination programme is a very good news story at a time when good news stories are in short supply. It is remarkable that a number of effective vaccines were developed for a new virus in so short a period of time. Vaccinated healthcare workers will have greater peace of mind due to their reduced risk of becoming ill with the virus. Nursing home residents, and their families, who have lived in fear throughout this pandemic, will similarly be galvanised by the vaccination programme.
The news that recent deals have been struck with GPs and pharmacists to support the mass vaccination effort is also welcome. The European Commission has also called on member states to accelerate the roll-out of vaccinations, so that by this summer a minimum of 70 per cent of the adult population will be vaccinated.
Many predictions about the spread of Covid-19 have proved to be incorrect, and given the past year, it would be foolish to say with certainty how the vaccinations will proceed. There are sure to be further bumps along the road. But in this darkest of months, we should cling to what hope we can and hope is what the roll-out of the vaccination programme brings us.
*Note 27 January 2021 – This editorial was written before the news broke that there would be delays in the supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the EU. This definitely qualifies as a bump along the road. However, the point remains that the vaccination programme is still a good news story and offers us all much needed hope in these dark times.