Ireland’s journey from pandemic hotspot to vaccine poster child

Covid-19 vaccines updates

After endless months of yearning for home, I landed in Ireland from New York to wait out the pandemic in mid February. Dublin Airport was dark and deserted. So was much of the rest of the country, I would quickly find out.

January was the apocalypse of Ireland’s pandemic. Infections topped 8,000 a day as a free-for-all on Christmas socialising collided with the Delta variant’s infectiousness. The country’s underfunded health service commandeered resources from the private sector and narrowly avoided running out of intensive care beds. Many, many people died.

By the time of my arrival on Valentine’s Day, the worst of the crisis had passed but its shadow hung heavily. In the darkest days of winter, when the sun rises after eight and sets at five, Ireland’s residents were confined to within 5km of their homes unless travelling for essential reasons. Police checkpoints straddled country roads and urban dual carriageways to make sure we didn’t stray further.

Shops selling everything except the bare essentials were closed. The bare essentials included alcohol, but not, controversially, children’s shoes. Restaurants, pubs, churches, libraries were all shuttered for months on end. Leaving the country for non-essential reasons was banned; a police checkpoint at the entrance to Dublin’s only airport levied fines on the defiant.

The rules softened as the months went on, but only very gradually. I was in the country for eight weeks before I saw my parents, who live 100 miles from my Dublin base. Ireland was the last country in Europe to reopen its pubs and restaurants for indoor service, and even then, access was restricted to the fully vaccinated and those who could prove recent recovery from Covid or a negative test.

Friends say the brutality of winter’s lockdown, and the eagerness to avoid a repeat of that trauma, is one of the factors behind Ireland’s transformation from the Covid black spot I arrived in to the vaccine poster child I am now leaving, a country where more than 90 per cent of adults are expected to have received at least one shot by next week.

Brian MacCraith, the former Dublin City University president who heads Ireland’s vaccine task force, says public confidence in vaccines was boosted by the country’s caution in suspending them on safety grounds earlier in the year.

“I think that’s a significant factor in terms of comparing Ireland with other nations,” he says of Ireland’s achievement of fully vaccinating a higher percentage of its population than the EU and US.

Ireland accelerates vaccination drive. Chart showing % of the total population that is fully vaccinated

The delays to the vaccine rollout, driven partly by suspensions but mostly by supply issues in March and April, forced rapid overhauls of the programme and drew widespread criticism. That made for some difficult months but had a helpful side effect.

“Every time a new age group was announced there was huge excitement, and the fact there had been a shortage was probably a contributor to that,” MacCraith says.

Friends and acquaintances in the Republic of Ireland rushed to register as soon as their age groups were called up. Those in Northern Ireland and the US, where vaccines were plentiful much earlier, dithered about whether they could be forced to take them.

Locals cite a variety of other reasons for Ireland’s strong vaccine take-up. They include the absence of the kind of far-right political force that fuelled anti-vaccine movements in other countries and a strong sense of community, along with high levels of “common sense”, trust in authorities and people wanting to do the right thing.

Linking vaccines to entry to indoor hospitality has also been an important factor, especially for younger adults, some say. 

Whatever the causes, images of teenagers queueing for vaccines outside walk-in centres are quickly becoming as iconic as pictures of Ireland’s deserted streets from earlier days of the pandemic. Close to 40,000 of them have been vaccinated in the past two weekends alone.

The scenes at those centres are hopeful and uplifting, the smiles stretching as long as a summertime Irish evening. As my temporary post ends, that is the Ireland I hope to remember long after the desolation of our pandemic winter fades.

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