Kevin ClarkeMarch 11, 2021
A statue of St. Patrick, patron of Ireland, is seen at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Brooklyn, N.Y. The feast of St. Patrick is March 17, 2021. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

It will be a masked and restrained St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, with the government maintaining its highest “Level 5” restriction on businesses and the Irish public as it attempts to turn back a January spike in coronavirus cases. A year ago on March 11, Ireland suffered its first Covid-19 death. This year on March 6 its prime minister (known in Ireland as the taoiseach), Micheál Martin, celebrated the “good news” that Ireland had distributed half a million coronavirus vaccinations about two months after the first inoculation. Mr. Martin tweeted, “The vaccines are having a significant impact on mortality and serious illness.”

With a population of 4.8 million, Ireland has reported 225,000 cases and 4,500 deaths from the coronavirus. It is one of the 10 European countries where the British variant of the virus is now dominant. After the easing of restrictions in December encouraged many exhausted by the Covid lockdown to celebrate Christmas together, Ireland experienced a rapid spike in Covid-19 cases, tallying more deaths and new Covid cases in January than in all of 2020.

After that setback, the government instituted a pandemic lockdown, ranked the strictest in Europe by University of Oxford researchers, that has largely turned back the coronavirus wave. Level 5 restrictions include a ban on all household visits, the closing of nonessential retail stores and a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) limit on travel. Only six people can attend a wedding and 10 are allowed at a funeral. Churches must remain closed except for private prayer, and sporting events both indoors and outdoors are forbidden, among many other measures meant to prevent the spreading of the virus. The restrictions are expected to continue at least through Easter.

With a population of 4.8 million, Ireland has reported 225,000 cases and 4,500 deaths from the coronavirus. It is one of the 10 European countries where the British variant of the virus is now dominant.

There will be no parades in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, and the government has warned that people who try to organize parties to celebrate the day will face fines and criminal prosecution.

Those restrictions have just begun to loosen slightly slightly. Irish schoolchildren were allowed a staggered return to classes beginning on March 1.

Adding to the gloom this spring have been small protests in Cork and Dublin against the lockdown as it entered its third month. The Dublin protest, which appeared to draw support from fringe right-wing groups, was shut down by police after violence broke out.

The government’s response to Covid and inability to secure vaccine supplies, thwarted by the European Union’s sourcing missteps, have been roundly criticized in Ireland, especially its disastrous decision to loosen restrictions in December.

The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference joined the domestic chorus of government critics following what the bishops described as a disappointing response to the conference’s appeals in February.

“We strongly believe that people’s freedom to worship publicly should be restored as soon as the current Level 5 restrictions begin to be eased,” the bishops said in a statement released after their spring conference on March 9. “It is particularly painful for Christians to be deprived, for the second year running, of the public expression of our faith during the most sacred time of Holy Week and Easter. This is especially true given that it has been clearly demonstrated that church buildings are among the safest places for people to gather.”

There will be no parades in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, and the government has warned that people who try to organize parties to celebrate the day will face fines and criminal prosecution.

The bishops also complained that ongoing restrictions at funeral Masses—currently limited to 10 participants—“are causing untold grief to many families.”

The bishops, including Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh; Archbishop Dermot Farrell of Dublin; Archbishop Kieran O’Reilly, S.M.A., of Cashel & Emly; and Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam, had met virtually with Prime Minister Martin on Feb. 19 to press their case for loosening restrictions on the sacraments. According to their message, though Mr. Martin seemed to acknowledge the validity of their argument, the bishops’ appeals for modification to Level 5 restrictions went unaddressed.

“Throughout this time of pandemic the approach of the Church has been firmly grounded in the protection of health and life and in the promotion of the Common Good,” the bishops said. “We recognize that strong restrictions are necessary in times of grave threat to public health. However, such restrictions on personal freedom should be proportionate and for the shortest time possible.”

They added, “Consideration must also be given to people’s mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing. For people of faith, gathering for worship is fundamental to their identity and to their spiritual lives.

They reiterated a request that “the easing of restrictions from Level 5 should include the restoration of public worship, albeit in a safe and limited way,” and that the number of mourners permitted at funeral services be increased immediately. The bishops noted that in Northern Ireland the number of mourners allowed to funerals had never been reduced below 25. “The current restriction places immense burdens on grieving families, compounding the pain of their loss,” the bishops said.

Irish bishops requested that “the easing of restrictions from Level 5 should include the restoration of public worship, albeit in a safe and limited way.”

According to the government’s current plan, worship restrictions in Ireland will not be loosened up until “Level 2” pandemic status is reached, a time frame the bishops said was “particularly distressing and unjust.”

A government spokesperson on March 9 told Irish media that the prime minister was surprised by the bishops’ statement but denied that he had agreed to consider reducing limits on Mass attendance. “He carried out a virtual meeting with the four archbishops on February 19th in good faith, when he explained the impact of the new variant and the importance of suppressing the virus while the most vulnerable in society are vaccinated,” the spokesperson said. “He also acknowledged the importance of the church community in people’s lives and agreed to maintain an open dialogue,” but owing to the “serious nature of the pandemic, it was not possible to give guarantees on future levels of restrictions.”

The European Medicines Agency on March 11 gave the green light to Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose coronavirus vaccine, handing the European Union’s 27 nations a fourth vaccine to try to speed up the bloc’s much-criticized vaccination rollout. Health experts hope that having a one-dose vaccine will speed efforts to immunize the world against Covid-19, especially given the recent infection spikes in Europe driven by worrying new variants.

The European Union has struggled to quickly roll out shots and immunize its most vulnerable citizens. It ranks far behind countries including Israel, Britain, Chile and the United States.

Europe recorded 1 million new Covid-19 cases last week, an increase of 9 percent from the previous week. That disappointing reversal ended a six-week decline in new infections. The World Health Organization’s European office blamed that surge partly on virus variants.

“The spread of the variants is driving the increase, but not only,” said Dr. Hans Kluge, W.H.O.’s regional director for Europe, citing “also the opening of society, when it is not done in a safe and a controlled manner.”

The variant first found in the United Kingdom is spreading significantly in 27 European countries monitored by W.H.O. and is dominant in at least 10 countries: Britain, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Israel, Spain and Portugal.

The U.K. variant is described as 50 percent more transmissible than the virus that surged last spring and again in the fall, making it more adept at thwarting measures that were previously effective, W.H.O. experts warned. Scientists have concluded that it is also more deadly.

“That is why health systems are struggling more now,” Mr. Kluge said. “It really is at a tipping point. We have to hold the fort and be very vigilant.”

In January the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, ranked Ireland 43 out the 98 nations it assessed for the efficacy of their domestic Covid response. New Zealand was ranked at the top, and the United States ranked near the bottom at 94, just ahead of Iran, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, which ranked dead last.

With reporting from The Associated Press

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