What has 2020 taught us about managing COVID-19 on the island of Ireland? Here are a few pointers.
1. To compare COVID-19 death rates North and South is to ‘weaponise’ the pandemic for the Irish nationalist cause and to collude in thinking that a united Ireland is inevitable (thank you Lord Caine). But to ask the question, ‘how does Northern Ireland compare to the UK’ or ‘in world terms’, is perfectly normal with no connotations whatsoever.
2. For COVID-19 there are ’four nations’, of which N. Ireland is one. For rugby there are ‘six nations’, of which Ireland (the island) is one.
3. With COVID-19 it is important to know the difference between ‘mass gatherings’ and ‘mass’ gatherings, especially when it comes to dishing out the blame for ‘super-spreader’ events. We are now talking about events in June, after Wave One – not to be confused with gatherings, such as the Cheltenham Festival and the Liverpool v Atletico Madrid match, which were allowed to go ahead as the first wave took off in early March. Nor to be confused with the gatherings that in September were exempted from England’s ‘rule of six’, such as Polo and hunting & shooting parties.
4. Some ‘mass gatherings’ are more legitimate than others. The Black Lives Matter protests in Derry and Belfast, for which PSNI issued 71 fines, were actively discouraged by the police. A week later (13 June), Protect Our Monuments, which PSNI intelligence correctly anticipated would be ‘predominantly, if not exclusively, from the Protestant, Unionist Loyalist Community’ (Police Ombudsman), gathered shoulder to shoulder to surround Belfast City Hall, in case anyone fancied a pop at ‘the famine queen’ (please don’t – I need to take a photo for a book). PSNI encouraged POM to proceed and ‘attended’ on the day. No fines were issued.
5. Also in June, two ‘mass’ gatherings occurred – the state funeral of Detective Garda Colm Horkan in Mayo and Bobby Storey’s funeral in Belfast. Only one of these had anything to do with spreading the disease we learnt. Late June, remember, was the closest we came to ‘zero-COVID’ across the island. Daily case rates were at their lowest: 1.3 per million people in the Republic and 1.7 in the North (based on 7-day rolling averages). In Sweden, the example favoured by anti-lockdowners, the rate was then at 121 per million.
6. On 14 September the same daily case rate (41 per million) was recorded north and south but because numbers were rising steadily, the Republic introduced the 5-level Resilience and Recovery Plan and started to apply ‘stay in your county’ restrictions to Dublin, Donegal and elsewhere. By 1 October, the North’s daily case rate was double that in the Republic, and while some local restrictions to the hospitality sector were applied to Derry and Strabane, the case rate soared upwards. It was four times the rate in the Republic by 9 October, reaching a peak of 540 by 22 October.
7. During October’s peak the agriculture minister told us that COVID-19 Wave Two was due to a certain funeral three and a half months earlier. On 16 October he stated: “People in that community saw the breaking of the rules. That is why there is a difference [in COVID] between nationalist and unionist areas, and the difference is around six to one”. This sounded almost scientific with an actual statistic, even though when the education minister provided back-up for his colleague, he said that “people have a right to express their opinions”. Was there any basis to the claim or was this blatant sectarian ‘opinion’? A perfect case for the Factcheckers one would have thought, but they were nowhere to be seen. Fair play to the Irish Times which swiftly debunked the nonsense in a couple of paragraphs. So we were led to believe that Wave Two was nothing to do with lockdown sceptics, anti-maskers, or Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out in August which not only accelerated the spread COVID-19 according to scientists at Warwick Uni, but cost more, at £849m, than it would take to lift everyone in the North above the poverty line for an entire year. Instead, foodbank queues continued to grow.
8. Come mid-November, the daily average COVID-19 death rate in the Republic was hovering around 1.0 per million. In the North it peaked at 6.0 on 18 November and cases started to fall – well, not in Sweden where cases surged to a daily rate of 650 per million. But then, Britain discovers a world beating COVID-19 variant that spreads even faster than the one in South Africa and suddenly no-one wants travellers from GB – except some in the divided nation of Northern Ireland. On 14 December the Republic had a daily average of 57 new cases per million, one of the lowest rates in Europe. The North had a rate four times that (240). Six days later, when the Dublin government decided to ban flights from GB, the rate in the Republic was 97 per million. Although almost three times higher in the North at the time (281) no flight ban is brought in, allowing travellers from GB to add to the pool of infection and to reach the Republic via the North.
So we end the year under ‘curfew’ and with a daily death rate, 7.4 per million, more than five times what it is in the Republic. The North just doesn’t seem capable of acting fast enough and in the right way on everything from travel restrictions to test, trace, isolate and support. We still live under the cloud of the incompetent, bumbling, entitled, unserious and incestuous management from Downing Street. As we look forward to help from vaccines to get COVID-19 under control in 2021, let’s not forget why some places do better than others.
In 2021, do say: “I’ll take the vaccine but don’t want to jump to the front of the line.” (President-elect Joe Biden)
Don’t say: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” (Agent Orange alias one-term-President Donald Trump)