As if a new and changing virus weren’t a threat enough, elusive former politicians are part of the public health crisis in Northern Ireland. With a population half that of the Republic, the rates of transmission of Covid-19 in the North are four times higher. The government is sincere in offering support and coordination to the northern executive while also worrying about the cross-border infection. The restrictions that the executive agreed to yesterday fell short of what their own experts described.
Since the pandemic struck, public health specialist Dr Gabriel Scally has been the first to advocate for all-island measures, bolstered by outspoken Derry GP, Dr Tom Black, chairman of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland. With doctors treating patients on Wednesday in ambulances in hospital parking lots, Dr Scally said the executive health and science team should be replaced and the health minister should step down. Dr Black said political leadership had not been clear and rational. Witnessing inertia – or obstruction – as the public health system falters is patently intolerable for veteran experts. But doctors know that Ulster Unionist Minister Robin Swann has pleaded for longer and more complete lockdowns against the dominant unionist DUP, libertarian and pro-business. And Unionist politicians see cross-border strategies threatening the separation of the North.
His party’s only minister, Swann, was also weakened by the dysfunctional executive leadership theoretically shared by the DUP and Sinn Féin. The fact that SF broke regulations in June with their funeral ceremonies in West Belfast for IRA chief Bobby Storey gave DUP cover when they twice vetoed the lockdown push from the Minister of Health in October. DUP minister (and possible party leadership candidate) Edwin Poots used the same excuse when he alleged that nationalist districts had six times more infection than unionist areas.
Even as the DUP toppled Swann in October, science adviser Professor Ian Young deemed “more likely than not” that the Department of Health would recommend more restrictions before Christmas.
A health service that has been deprived of funding for more than a decade, especially recruiting nursing students, could not resist political dogma and failure, as in Britain, to be followed and traced completely.
Modeling by the department of Swann shows an overlap between economic deprivation and Covid hospitalization, without in-depth study of the link between transmission and poverty. But financial support for low-income people forced to self-isolate is slow to arrive, and unemployment and sickness benefits lag far behind those in the Republic and England. The health crisis in the North requires crisis management, followed by fundamental exploration.