The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ireland had one of the lowest coronavirus rates in Europe. It’s now highest in the world.

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In the last weeks of 2020, Ireland had one of the lowest coronavirus cases per capita in the European Union. Today, it has the highest in the entire world.

While countries across Europe battle a third wave, in Ireland, the trajectory in recent weeks isn’t just an upward curve: It’s the path of a rocket ship.

Going into Christmas week, Ireland was reporting 10 new coronavirus cases each day per 100,000 residents — compared with about 66 cases per 100,000 residents in the United States. But three weeks later, Ireland is reporting more than 132 new cases per 100,000, according to the latest seven-day rolling average compiled by Johns Hopkins University, while the United States has risen less dramatically, to about 75 cases per 100,000.

“I think we’ve run out of adjectives to describe how serious this is,” Irish health chief Paul Reid said.

The reasons behind the rapid rise are under debate, but relaxed restrictions around Christmas may have helped fuel the spread. There is also increasing concern about the “U.K. variant,” which is estimated to be up to 70 percent more transmissible than previous forms of the coronavirus.

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said Monday that people mixing over Christmas and the arrival of the new variant created a “perfect storm.”

He noted that the latest testing showed 42 out of 92 new samples were positive for the variant — so nearly half.

Public health officials in Ireland, which has fewer intensive care beds than most European Union countries, are highly concerned about the strain on the health-care system.

Former CDC director Tom Frieden tweeted about the “exponential increases” in Ireland and Britain.

“I’ve never seen an epidemic curve like this, and the curve is with lockdown. If the variant becomes common the U.S., it’s close to a worst-case scenario, with a baseline of full hospitals,” he said.

It wasn’t long ago that Ireland was being praised for the success of its coronavirus response. In October, it became the first E.U. country to reimpose a nationwide lockdown, while many neighboring countries were only willing to pursue regional restrictions in hot-spot areas. That early and radical move thoroughly tamped down Ireland’s second wave.

But the Irish government lifted some measures in December, reopening restaurants and retail stores. People began to go out again. They socialized. They met up over the holidays. This appears to have coincided with the arrival of the more contagious variant.

Irish leaders on Monday defended their decisions.

“We accept our responsibility, but we have acted at all times in responding effectively to the waves that have emerged,” Martin told the radio show Newstalk.

Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar noted that the third wave was lashing many European countries and said it was “too simplistic . . . to say that if one thing had been done differently, everything would be fine.”

He suggested five factors may have contributed to Ireland’s spike: the opening up of hospitality in December, the mixing of households, people fanning out across the country before Christmas, noncompliance at funerals and wakes and the rise of shebeens (illicit drinking shops), and the new variant.

“You don’t go from 400 cases a day and a 5 percent positivity rate to 7,000 cases and a 25 percent positivity rate because of one thing. It takes a lot of things,” Varadkar told Newstalk. “If you take those five factors together, that’s probably the best explanation that can be given.”

The startling figures have prompted questions about whether a rethink is needed for which measures are effective against the fast-spreading variant.

Whereas most of Europe was committed to keeping schools open through the second wave, Ireland’s resumed lockdown includes the closure of schools.

Gabriel Scally, a professor of public health at the University of Bristol, said that it was “foolish and misguided” to loosen restrictions for Christmas, which led to more mixing, when the “clear public health advice is it was the wrong thing to do.”

He also said Ireland, as well as Britain, have paid the price for being among the few places in the world without tight controls on airports and ports. Both have announced tougher restrictions in recent days, with air passengers being required to show a negative test taken up to 72 hours before departure.

Scally said, too, that Ireland hasn’t taken advantage of its island status the way places such as New Zealand and Taiwan have.

There is constant movement across the invisible border that separates the Republic of Ireland, in the south, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom and has its own semiautonomous government.

He said some people had taken advantage of the open border and done a “Dublin dodge.” When Ireland joined dozens of other countries in slapping a travel ban on Britain after the variant was identified, there were numerous reports of passengers flying into Belfast, in Northern Ireland, and then just driving across the border to the south.

Both Ireland and Northern Ireland are now in strict lockdowns, and they adopted similar measures in the spring. But the two jurisdictions took different approaches in the late autumn, with Northern Ireland imposing a lighter touch.

“Northern Ireland had been three or four times higher than the Republic of Ireland three or four weeks ago,” said Peter Donaghy, a data analyst, who added that officials in Northern Ireland dithered and disagreed over restrictions.

Northern Ireland hospitals are under stress, with one on Sunday calling in all off-duty staff.

Scally called on the governments to take an all-island approach to covid-19. “They would have done if it had been a disease of cattle, pigs or sheep,” he said, referring to bans on the movement of livestock during an outbreak of animal disease.

Lindsay Broadbent, a virologist at Queen’s University Belfast, agreed there should be a more unified approach.

“There needs to be recognition of that, not just in Ireland, that viruses don’t infect people differently depending on which side of the border you live on,” she said.

Ferguson reported from Belfast and Adam from London.