Despite tighter restrictions than the rest of the country, Belfast’s weekly infection rate has exceeded 800 per 100,000 in recent days – the highest in the 16-month pandemic and around double the UK average.
Some postcodes, including parts of Loyalist Shankill Road and Republican Falls Road, have infection rates above 1,000 per 100,000, which puts them on par with the northeastern Covid epicenter from England.
“This is not going in the right direction,” said Dr Ultan Power, a respiratory virus specialist at Queen’s University Belfast, who predicted it would take “a week or two more” before he was born. There is a “clear indication” of the same type of turnaround seen in Scotland and parts of England.
Thursday’s case count for Northern Ireland was 1,471. The region recorded 1,600 and 1,473 cases the previous two days – all more than double Monday’s number of 639. “The alarming increase in the number of cases in recent days and weeks should serve as a clear warning that this pandemic is far from over,” Robin Swann, the region’s health minister said on Wednesday, urging people to use a self-tracking application to help limit the spread. He said concerns about a ‘pingemia’ from the app ‘trivialize the very real dangers we collectively still face because of Covid-19’.
Widespread vaccination among the most vulnerable means deaths and hospitalizations are far lower than in previous waves of Covid, but Belfast’s largest health trust still had to appeal last weekend for help nursing staff on leave. The Belfast Trust has started to cancel operations and has opened new beds as bosses prepare to increase admissions.
“People seem to have had their freedom day long before freedom day,” said Dr Michael McKenna, who has a general practice on Falls Road. He said people were less diligent with wearing masks and sanitizing their hands, and mingled in greater numbers during a period when he sent more patients to the hospital than at any time in the pandemic.
“The enforcement of the rules is not as strict as you would like in some places,” McKenna said.
It was evident in the streets of Belfast on Thursday. Staff and customers were maskless in more than a dozen downtown stores and cafes, including a pharmacy. It was the same on Shankill Road. Some adults on the buses and bus drivers on Belfast’s distinctive pink double-decker buses have also gone maskless, in violation of Northern Ireland rules.
Large rallies of locals supporting Italy against England in the Euro final also contributed to the rise in the number of cases in his region, McKenna said, adding that the surges in neighboring loyalist areas were likely in part sparked by rallies around July 11-12 – the high point for loyalists. annual walking and bonfire season.
“Large gatherings will have had a significant impact on the transmission of the virus,” Power said.
Carál Ní Chuilín, a representative of Sinn Féin Stormont whose North Belfast region has been severely affected by the latest wave, said poverty was also a major contributor. “These areas are really disadvantaged communities, there has always been a strong link between poverty and poor health and Covid has exacerbated this situation,” she said.
Another factor is the slowdown in vaccine uptake. While the Northern Ireland program got off to a strong start, it now has the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated people of any country in the UK. In England, the government and experts are concerned about the reluctance to vaccinate which meant that only 66% of 18-29 year olds had their first vaccine on July 22. In Northern Ireland, where vaccines were available free to the younger cohort earlier, less than 59 percent of 18-29 year olds had their first shot on July 28.
There were long lines at a walk-in vaccination center on Thursday, but anti-vaccine signs featured prominently at a protest against Covid measures in Belfast last weekend.
McKenna said the region’s fundamentalist “belief set” was a complicating factor. Jim Wells, a 64-year-old former health minister and current Stormont representative for the Democratic Unionist Party, has become the flagship of the vaccine opposition after he told a popular radio show he would not take vaccines currently offered because they were tested on stem cells from an aborted baby.
“This week I was called a dinosaur, a fanatic, a monster,” Wells told the Financial Times. “I’m not saying that anyone should follow my lead or take a step back from a vaccine, all I’m saying is I can’t be associated with abortion. ”
He said others with his view are calling on the Government of Northern Ireland to come up with a synthetically developed vaccine instead.
Northern Ireland does not publish data on the vaccination status of those infected. Almost 30 percent of the region’s cases over the past week were among those under 19, the group least likely to be vaccinated, while 44 percent were among 20 to 39, a group over likely to think that their youth makes them less vulnerable to severe Covid.
“I would be more concerned about the young people who feel invincible,” said Power. “People are really not making the right choice in terms of balancing the risk of getting infected with the risk of getting vaccinated. ”
Ní Chuilín said the public message around vaccines had to be “stronger”. Belfast health authorities hope to increase participation by deploying mobile clinics.
Despite the increase in cases, Northern Ireland on Tuesday launched the next phase of its reopening plan, including allowing theaters and indoor concert halls to reopen with advance reservations only, measures which, according to Power, would give the virus a new opportunity to spread. Further relaxation of social distancing in retail and outdoor dining was approved on Thursday.
Ní Chuilín said she saw no backsliding from the community. “There’s a lot of loyalty to hospitality and theaters and things like that,” she said.