Ireland emerged from a six-week lockdown in early December with the European Union’s lowest coronavirus infection rate.
It eased restrictions in belief it could contain a rise in the virus over Christmas unlike, say, Germany and the UK, countries that had more than four times the level of infection. Then all hell broke loose.
From mid-December, the virus started ripping across Ireland, gaining a speed unimagined in the worst-case scenarios and forming an almost vertical line that rushed up, up and up to give Ireland, on Monday, the world’s highest rate of Covid-19 infection.
The country’s seven-day rolling average is 1,394 cases a million – outstripping the UK on 810, Portugal on 735, the US on 653 and Germany on 248. On 12 December Ireland recorded 52.31 cases for every million people. By Sunday the figure was 1,322.92.
Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization on Monday named Ireland as having the most infections per capita over the past seven days, followed by the Czech Republic, Slovenia and the UK.
Ireland’s vertiginous infection-rate swoop overtook the US on 5 January and the UK on 6 January and has continued climbing. Some 46,000 people have been infected in the past seven days – more than the total infected in the eight months from March to October.
The explosion has shocked and confounded the government and wider society, with theories, explanations and blame struggling to catch up with the grim daily updates.
“It’s staggering,” said Seán L’Estrange, a social scientist at University College Dublin who has written about Ireland’s response to the pandemic.
Socialising in households over Christmas, the opening of restaurants and gastro-pubs and the appearance of the more transmissable variant of the virus first identified in England all contributed to the surge.
The new variant accounted for 45% of the most recent virus samples versus 25% of those tested in the week to 3 January and 9% tested two weeks earlier.
L’Estrange blamed the government’s decision to relax restrictions in the run-up to Christmas and to delay taking action when infections began to rise as early as 10 December.
He said: “It was reckless. They disregarded the evidence. Even [Boris] Johnson eventually U-turned and cancelled Christmas in England but our crowd over here stuck their fingers in their ears. It was weak and sentimental government – ‘let’s all have Santa’ schmaltz.”
L’Estrange said sampling results suggested the situation was out of control before the England variant became widespread.
The health service is reeling. Acute hospitals are facing an unprecedented crisis that could worsen in coming weeks. About 1,582 Covid-19 patients are in hospital, with 146 in intensive care, near the spring peak of 155.
“The alarming level of disease is unprecedented in terms of our experience of the levels of Covid-19 in the community,” Philip Nolan, chair of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, told a press conference on Monday night.
He said: “We are seeing numbers of cases per day, and numbers in hospital, that we just could not have comprehended prior to Christmas.”
Hospital admission numbers are doubling every week, driving the system to breaking point, according to the Irish Hospital Consultants’ Association.
“Whether it will break that limit and we will be in a situation where doctors will be forced to ration care, which would be horrendous for everybody involved, we just don’t know,” Gabrielle Colleran, of the Irish Hospital Consultants’ Association, told RTE.
Letterkenny University hospital in County Donegal was briefly overwhelmed on Sunday, forcing patients to wait in a queue of ambulances before being admitted. Some health experts fear the number of Covid-linked deaths will exceed 100 a day, far higher than the peak of the first wave last spring.
The taoiseach, Micheál Martin, defended the decision to ease restrictions and rejected accusations that the government had muddled its messaging in promising a “meaningful” Christmas. “We accept our responsibility, but we have acted at all times in responding effectively to the waves that have emerged,” he told Newstalk radio. The combination of people socialising and the UK variant had created “a perfect storm”, he said. He urged people to wear face coverings when “out and about”.
Martin cited encouraging signs in recent days that suggested the five-day rolling average was plateauing. Referral rates from GPs are falling as are positivity rates and the number of close contacts of those infected.
Leo Varadkar, the deputy prime minister, said it could be several weeks before the numbers needing hospital care falls. “The situation is still deteriorating and it’s likely to get worse.”