A key report used by the Government to back the recent Level 5 lock-down and justify the continuing closure of most pubs fails to address several key areas where COVID-19 is being spread.
Late last month – in the face of criticism from vintners – the Government moved to publish the findings of an Ernst and Young data analysis survey it had commissioned on the impact of Ireland’s COVID-19 management strategy.
The data in the report does tend to support the closure of ‘wet pubs’ that cannot serve any food.
However, it offers little evidence that supports the decision to shut thousands of pubs which were open during the summer by serving €9 meals in pairing with a neighbouring restaurant or setting up their own rudimentary kitchens.
According to the data compiled in the report, the 10-day period after ‘wet pubs’ were allowed reopen in late September coincided with a surge in COVID incidence rates in most counties.
In their study, the E&Y analysts looked at daily changes in counties’ 14-day incidence rates following major the introduction or loosening of restrictions.
In Kerry the “daily average change” in the incidence rate stayed at zero from the start of May to the end of August. In the 10 days after ‘wet pubs’ opened, it jumped to 11, and similar patterns were seen across most counties.
In Dublin, where wet pubs remained shut, the number of cases was still high but the 14-day incidence rate remained static.
Following the release of the report Health Minister Stephen Donnelly cited this as “unambiguous” proof that wet pubs – including those that opened under the €9 meal ‘loophole’ – were a source of “superspreader events”.
His comments, however, are not actually supported by the report’s key findings.
The data in the report does provide some evidence linking ‘wet pubs’ to a spike in cases, but it offers no proof that justifies the Government’s decision to keep closed indefinitely every pub that doesn’t have its own kitchen.
In fact, the data shows that, across most of the country, there was no increase at all in incidence rates between June 29 – when restrictions on pubs serving food were first lifted – and the reopening of schools at the end of August. Even then the increase was very minimal.
There is also little acknowledgment of the role of colleges in the second wave.
Most universities began reopening the same week as the ‘wet pubs’.
This receives only a passing reference from the Ernst and Young analysis and is not examined in any detail. Far more attention is focussed on the return of ‘wet pubs’ than on the reopening of universities and colleges to tens of thousands of students from every corner of the country.
In a county-specific section on Cork, a brief mention is made to the fact that incidence rates in Cork city “declined” in November as universities moved more courses online.
That “decline” refers to an almost 80-per-cent drop in the incidence rate in the city, but the true scale isn’t highlighted. Other areas of the report also raise questions.
In the summary of the report’s key findings, “social gatherings” are identified as contributing to outbreaks. Despite this, in a county-by-county breakdown of the “main outbreak sources” of both wave one and wave two, E&Y could identify only a single case in Wexford where an outbreak was linked to a social gathering.
By contrast, during wave two, outbreaks in 18 counties were linked to nursing homes, with outbreaks in 12 counties linked to workplace transmission. The primary source of wave two outbreaks identified in every single county were private homes and extended families.
In Kerry, the main sources of outbreaks identified in ‘wave one’ were private houses; residential institutions and hospital. In wave two they were, once again, private hospitals; an unspecified community outbreak and a nursing home.
The data on the source of outbreaks is itself problematic as the State still has no effective case-tracing system in place, and the actual sources of many outbreaks are only loosely classified.
While ‘social gatherings’ are included in the official HSE ‘outbreak’ figures used by E&Y, schools and universities are not.
As a result, in most school and college campus outbreaks the cases are actually included with figures from ‘private houses’ which also include everything from family homes to shared student accommodation units and factory workers’ dormitories.
As a result, until accurate case tracing begins, it is impossible (using publicly available figures) to ascertain the true levels of COVID-19 in schools and colleges.