The Government has tough questions to answer and hard decisions to make as we plot a new path through these unprecedented times, writes Fergal Bowers.

Covid-19 is blind to power, wealth and authority.
It bypasses protocols and preys on the cracks in society, looking for weakness in our defences.
Which makes it so important that people hold firm against this unprecedented threat.
With the decline in deaths and cases, it may feel like the enemy has left the building. But there are many entrances to protect and this intruder has all the time in the word.
After all, it has largely consumed the world for the past 20 weeks. It will continue to do so, for an unknown period.
Covid-19 has brought a big stop to the world’s gallop. In some ways, it has becalmed the planet. And its arrival has been a life-changing event, for us all.
Remember the good old days? Basically, any time before January 2020 should now be classified as the good old days, right? 
In those days, a decision on whether to pop out for a brisk walk, or a bit of shopping, was often based on what Evelyn Cusack said about the weather forecast.
Now, before we venture outside, we must check the ‘R’ factor.
We all know what the X Factor is thanks to Simon Cowell. But apart from the odd epidemiologist, most of us had never heard of the R factor before 2020.
The R factor now seems to dominate conversations and decision making. “Sorry honey, I can’t go out and get a bag of potatoes because the R factor is close to 1 again.” 
As we all must know by now, the R factor is basically a way of measuring the capacity of a disease to spread.
It tells us the average number of people that one infected person will pass the virus to. Here in Ireland, the number is currently between 0.4 and 0.5 and that is good. As the HSE says, we have beaten the virus off the streets. 
There are some questions however as to how much we should rely on the R value. That’s because it can be much more difficult to estimate what it is, as it slips below one.
Even members of the UK’s expert team – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – have questioned the reliance on the R value, noting that you can never know exactly what the R value is.
R is also an average value that can vary in different parts of the country, communities and subsections of the population. There is always some uncertainty about it. So it is important to always look at the R value, alongside the number of people currently infected.
Much also depends on what data is used to determine the R value. It is an important number and a factor but imperfect. It has to be taken into consideration but it is not the oracle.
Here most of the trends with coronavirus appear to be going in the right direction. The deaths and cases have been decreasing. Hospitalisations due to Covid-19 are also reducing, down to 193 confirmed cases, plus 223 suspected cases up to yesterday.
Over 40 people remain in ICU with the virus. The nature of ICU is such that these patients can spend quite a while in intensive care and so these numbers are usually slow to reduce. But we certainly do not want to see them rise again with coronavirus.
Despite these positive numbers, we are still advised to physically distance two metres, the national finances are heading in the wrong direction and the road map out of here looks very long.
At this time of crisis, public health advice is crucial. But the Government must also take into account other considerations too: the economic reality and the good of society.
The Pandemic Unemployment Payments remain significant. From a business perspective, there must be a country to reopen when things settle.
In the past week, the Fiscal Advisory Council warned that spending cuts and tax increases will be needed in future plans to recognise the reality of the impact of the virus on our country. So the task of reopening Ireland is indeed a high-wire act and getting the timing right is critical.
We can already see other European countries reopening.
Take France for example. From this Tuesday, 2 June, people can go to a café, bar or restaurant but must keep a distance of one metre from other tables. They can also travel more than 100km from their residence.
And they can go to the theatre for a show, take a swim, go to the gym and attend school. Experts here and politicians will be closely watching how this works out in other countries and if their R values rise.
There have been over 880 deaths in nursing homes here related to Covid-19.
Many questions were asked at last week’s Special Dáil Committee meeting on the Covid-19 response, and what happened in nursing homes.
A huge volume of documents, reports and correspondence was published by the Department of Health on its website last week on the subject.
One document of particular interest was the ‘Overview of the Health System Response to Date – Long term residential healthcare settings’. It was a National Public Health Emergency Team paper, tabled on 22 May.
In Ireland, there are various long-term residential care facilities, like nursing homes, disability centres and mental health facilities. The vast majority of deaths from the virus have been in nursing homes.
This report found that the incidence rate of Covid-19 among residents of long-term residential care facilities was around 45 times greater than the general population. It means that 13% of all people in long-term residential care in Ireland have been confirmed as having Covid-19. 
One of the claims made at the hearings by the watchdog the Health Information and Quality Authority, was that the HSE did not know the private nursing home sector.
Normally, the HSE does not have direct dealings with private nursing homes but during this crisis, it has been required to forge new links and provided supports to this sector.
The sad events in nursing homes have placed the spotlight on the gaps in oversight of nursing homes within the overall health system. It is an important issue for policy makers.
Over the past few decades, Governments have not viewed the provision of increased public nursing home facilities as a necessary policy. As a result, the private sector stepped in and the service is largely provided by the private and voluntary sector. 
Given the claims made by Nursing Homes Ireland, which represents the private and voluntary sector, the question has been asked if the State itself practiced a bit of social distancing in its overall approach to private nursing homes in the early stages of the crisis.
While HIQA conducts assessments of how nursing homes comply with published standards, there are gaps in the national oversight system.
We learned at the Dáil Committee last Tuesday that HIQA had not at that stage visited any of the nursing homes where there had been an outbreak, but it was going to start these visits the next day.
HIQA explained that there had been a process whereby all homes were being formally contacted on a regular basis and asked how they were managing. Was that good enough?
The blame game that emerged at the Dáil hearing may not have thrown a lot of light on what actually occurred, but the hope must be that the lessons from the initial outbreak will have been learned, so that all those involved in overseeing and providing services can be better prepared if we experience further waves of Covid-19.
Social distancing will also change the future of nursing home care itself. It will mean fewer residents in homes and a requirement to make some physical changes to some buildings.
That could have significant implications for residents in terms of the future cost and also whether, for some homes, it may simply no longer be viable to continue. 
On 27 March, all non-essential care in the health system was paused, due to Covid-19. That included a halt to all national screening programmes – cervical, breast, bowel and for diabetic retinopathy.
Some non-essential care has resumed since 5 May but slowly. And a plan on how care will be provided in the future is being finalised by the HSE.
But for national screening programmes, the HSE can not give a date for when screening will resume. That is serious. Other countries face similar problems due to coronavirus. How do you resume screening services safely? 
The real worry is the scale of missed illnesses that may develop due to the halting of screening. There are rapid access clinics in operation for people with symptoms, but the whole idea about screening is to be able to spot disease before symptoms arise and give patients the best chance of survival.
Health officials are now talking about a whole new model of screening. There are huge judgment calls in halting national screening services, and balancing the risk of people becoming infected with Covid-19 by continuing screening, versus the risk of cancers being diagnosed late by halting screening.
We are all facing another Bank Holiday weekend with uncertainty. The weather is improving and many more people are out and about. There is some laughter in the air. We are heading into what should be a beautiful time of the year.
Nothing shouts freedom more than a sunny day at the beach, or a mountain walk in clear air. Like the birds at this time of year, we welcome the bright early mornings and long lingering evenings, showered with the colours from a prism. It helps lift the darkness of these times.
2020 looks like being a cruel summer, unlike any other. The usual mix of music festivals, sports, arts and literary events have vanished.
The soundtrack to this summer has given an eerie new meaning to old songs now being played again by DJs, like Don’t Stand So Close To Me by The Police,  Ghost Town by The Specials and the Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive.
We will survive, knowing there are better days ahead.
There has been much debate over physical distancing and whether it should be based on guidance of one or two metres. It has thrown a spotlight on the science behind various restrictions.
In the early stages of this crisis, there may understandably have been some of the ‘green jersey agenda’ in terms of the approach to the emergency in Ireland. We are still all in this together and that remains unchanged. 
But trust is essential at a time of crisis and some of the mixed messages that have emerged, as time has moved on, have generated confusion. Solid science and a proper balance of restrictions, in relation to citizens’ rights, is essential to ensure the social contract is maintained.
This includes a high tolerance for questions and challenging of authority. If the basis of major decisions is sound and evidence-based, there should be no fear of probing. It has been observed before in life that there are no bad questions, just poor answers.
It’s okay for even experts to be honest and say, ‘we just don’t know’. And there is certainly still a lot we don’t know about coronavirus. The public can handle this truth.
It’s good that we know a lot more about the virus now than we did at the very start. The  public is better informed and that has helped reduce some of the fear factor. In our own various ways, we are learning to live with Covid-19, physically and mentally. As we all gain a greater understanding of what we are facing, it gives us more confidence in the fight.
We have already travelled a long road. None of us can predict what is in store for the rest of 2020. We hope and pray that autumn and winter will be kinder to us than spring and early summer have been.
These most difficult of days have also allowed time to reflect on what is important in life.
The lovely evenings give pause for thought. And all the stars seem closer now we feel more connected. With Covid-19, our own personal journeys have been interrupted in different ways.
But soon it will be time to press restart. The pace of life will resume, but in a much changed world.
This leg of our trip is nearing an end. Now is the time to find the exit.
And begin again anew.