IT’S no surprise that our hospitals are struggling to cope after the Christmas relaxation of Covid restrictions which just about everybody knew would see us arrive at this point.
There are signs that the seriousness of the current position is starting to hit home in places that matter, with an increasing number of supermarkets either putting in place stricter mask-compliance protocols, restricting the number of people allowed in-store, or both.
Despite the fact that we are at the most critical period thus far in a pandemic which is heading rapidly towards its first anniversary, there are encouraging signs that the R infection rate – recently as high as 1.8 – is beginning to head in the right direction. And with the schools closed, a stricter lockdown in place and no potentially problematic bank holidays or feast days in prospect until St Valentine’s Day in a month’s time, there’s now a chance for a clear run at the pandemic that could represent the biggest chance for advance in the past ten months.
And this is where police enforcement – or lack of it – is going to play a crucial role. The First Minister and deputy First Minister put on a welcome show of unity on Tuesday in Dungannon, after which they met PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to discuss the police’s role in the crucial fortnight to come.
Quite simply, while the vast majority of us can be trusted to show the community spirit required to keep ourselves, our families, friends and neighbours as safe as possible, we’ve all seen with our own eyes that there is a worryingly significant minority out there who believe their right to exercise personal choice when it comes to masks, travel and  distancing trumps their responsibility to those around them. And if these people continue to flaunt the regulations then they have to be dealt with in an increasingly robust way. The amount of discretion being handed to individual police officers is huge and we will inevitably see anomalies and discrepancies in how people are dealt with, how confrontations are handled. Which is why it is vital that the PSNI keeps a close eye on the situation on the ground and improves on instances of good practice while working hard to learn from examples of bad practice.
Also in the diary of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill is a round-table meeting with representatives of the retail sector at which they say they will reinforce the need to “comply with the spirit and letter of the agreement”. While the large supermarkets, which have seen sales soar during the pandemic, can afford to put Covid ‘stewards’ on the shop floor, smaller retailers can’t. And it would be a travesty if retail workers – many of them on the minimum wage – were required to act as security staff on top of their existing duties.
It seems that every week we are on the edge of the precipice, but that is the nature of a pandemic: disaster is just a step away, as is redemption. The decision on what step to take is entirely in our own hands. Let’s make the right choice.