What was the cost of Level 5 on our economy and health?
As the country moves out of Level 5 restrictions today, Health Correspondent Fergal Bowers looks at the impact on health services, while Economics Correspondent Robert Shortt examines the financial fallout.
The big question about Level 5 restrictions, which are being eased from today is, was it worth it?
From a health perspective, the figures show that Covid-19 case numbers fell, deaths have reduced and lives have been saved.
Exactly by how much is hard to be certain.
But the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) has provided its estimates, which say between 100-270 deaths have been averted, along with 130-320 ICU admissions from 800-2,200 hospitalisations.
Overall, NPHET believes that the measures prevented between 21,000-54,000 cases.
Unlike monthly and yearly economic data, because Level 5 was a unique situation, we have nothing to compare it with, as we were never in this exact position before.
If Ireland were to enter Level 5 lockdown on similar terms in the future, there would be comparable data.
But we can say now that with Level 5, Ireland did not reach the aim of getting down to 50-100 cases a day and the R number to 0.5 by the end of November.
Experts will have varying views on the reasons for this, but included in the mix is the fact that there was greater movement of people this time during restrictions, more people appeared to be at work and schools were open.
Private house outbreaks also played a part.
Ireland went into Level 5 restrictions at midnight, on Wednesday 21 October.
That evening, there were 1,167 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 reported and three further deaths.
There were 314 patients with the virus in hospital and 34 of these were in ICU.
We have come a long way since then, with a reduction in daily case numbers to around 270.
Six weeks on, the number of patients in hospital and in ICU with Covid-19 has also reduced a little.
Compared with the first lockdown, this time during Level 5 restrictions, hospital services continued, but at reduced capacity in certain areas, due to safety measures arising from the virus.
The number of people attending hospital emergency departments was down. Plus overall hospital waiting lists rose slightly.
We know more now about the mental and physical impact of the Level 5 lockdown, with the latest Central Statistics Survey of a sample of over 1,500 people in November.
Over twice as many people felt downhearted, or depressed in November, compared with last April.
Slightly more people rated their overall life satisfaction as low in November, compared with April.
People’s outlook on when things may return to something like before is also long term.
Almost 40% of people believe that it will take 12 months. Even more people – 45% – say it will be 1-2 years before life returns to normal.
Those who drink alcohol say they have been consuming more and similarly with junk food and sweets, during the Level 5 lockdown.
These factors will impact on the physical and mental health for some people.
While there has been a high price for Level 5, the CSO found that 71% of people believe the Level 5 response was appropriate.
Any discussion about the price of lockdowns much also include what the good health, or life of someone, is worth.
The benefit of Level 5 is that it reduced pressure on the overall health system – for Covid-19 and other care – and bought more time for vaccinations to begin to be rolled out.
The true cost of Level 5 from a health perspective cannot be determined properly at this point, as we simply do not have all the data about the physical and mental impact on people’s lives.
Some of this health impact will not present to GPs and hospitals for months to come.
It will deserve a detailed independent analysis, with the benefit of time, when things eventually return to normal.
The cost of putting the country under Level 5 Covid restrictions six weeks ago was estimated at the outset by the Department of Finance to be approximately €1.25bn.
This was in addition to a projected budget deficit this year of €21.5bn, announced on Budget day back at the start of October.
Estimates have varied since but the latest guess is the cost of Level 5 could have been upwards of €1.6bn.
That’s the extra money spent on more people claiming the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) and lower tax revenues from people spending and earning less. The PUP rates were also put back up to the old, higher rates, when the restrictions were reintroduced.
Level 5 didn’t have as severe an impact on the economy as the first lockdown in spring. That’s chiefly because more sectors, such as construction, remained open so more people stayed in work.
There’s a time lag with most economic data, but we do know that the Covid-adjusted unemployment rate (which takes account of those on Government support schemes) was 15.9% in September and went up to 20.2% at the end of October.
By the middle of last month, the numbers on the PUP had stabilised at approximately 350,000. That compares to just under 598,000 at its peak in the week of 5 May. Back in the middle of September, just before any new restrictions were imposed across the country, it had fallen to 209,000.
There are, however, more workers now being supported by the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme. That number now stands at approximately 345,400, with 35,400 employers signed up for the scheme.
Figures out from the Central Bank this week showed that spending on debit and credit cards, as well as ATM withdrawals, was down 13% in October following the reintroduction of restrictions. But back in April, spending on cards had fallen by 40% at its lowest point.
The pattern of spending remains the same with falls of 60% in spending on hotels and transport, and increases in spending on groceries, hardware and electrical goods.
Covid may not discriminate on who gets the virus, but its economic impact has been exceptionally severe on the services sector.
These numbers obviously don’t capture the frustrations of people who’ve had to close their restaurants, arts venue or seen their travel business collapse. And neither do they capture the immeasurable value of those whose lives may have been saved.
But they do tell us is that Covid-19 is a serious and ongoing threat to livelihoods and for everything we once took for granted.