COVID-19 in Ireland: One island, two approaches

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Pupils in Derry are attending class today, while their fellow students in Donegal - only a few miles down the road - are staying home.

This shows the somewhat unique situation currently at play, where a small island has taken two entirely different approaches to dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, has followed other European and Asian countries by implementing sweeping closures to curtail the spread of the virus. Last week the government in Dublin announced that many schools, colleges and other public facilities will close until at least the 29th March, although it is expected that restrictions will last several months.

Yet, Derry, and the rest of Northern Ireland, took a different approach, keeping schools and other public and private services open. This is in line with advice from the government in Westminster, as well as local health authorities, but is in sharp contrast to the Republic of Ireland and in face of local pressure.

Closures

The difference is most stark in the border towns - where some 30,000 people cross to and from daily for school, work and social reasons - but is noticeable everywhere.


 

A decision on schools has been the main point of contention in Northern Ireland over the past week. Several political parties, teachers unions and churches have argued for their immediate closure.


 

Yet despite closing last week in the South, with Scotland and Wales proposing the same, Northern Ireland’s health and education authorities had consistently stated the time here is not right.

Even a primary school in Derry, which has one suspected case of the virus, had their request to close rejected by the Northern Irish Department of Education on Wednesday.

Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP and Northern Ireland’s first minister, had also maintained that it is not time for schools to close, but when they do it will be for ‘at least 16 weeks’.

For many, there is no time to wait.

Fed up with waiting, parents of children with health issues have launched a legal bid to have all Northern Ireland schools closed. Darragh Mackin, a solicitor involved in the case, said that the health and education bodies have "failed in their respective obligations to our client, and indeed all children, by continuing to require their attendance at school in circumstances in which they would be at increased risk of contracting the condition.” International advice on the matter was being ignored, he added, and condemned the ‘deplorable situation’ that led to the mother to take legal action to keep her child safe.

In the gap, many have taken unilateral measures, leading to an uneven landscape. At least a dozen schools in the North have already announced closures for between a few days and a several weeks. Many others are weighing up whether or not to do the same, as large numbers of students are being kept home.

“I took the decision because it felt like the right way to be socially responsible”, says Kellie Turtle, one of the many parents in Northern Ireland who has already taken their children out of school. She says that when the government in Dublin announced the school closures, her first reaction was that it was somewhat premature. However, the rapidly changing events in other countries combined with revelations about Boris Johnson’s ‘herd immunity’ approach to the virus quickly changed her, and other parents', minds.

Kellie says that closing the schools would be saying something significant to a society. "When you close schools, people get a very clear sense of the urgency and severity of the situation. People are just left caught. It’s madness, I can't believe they haven't done it yet”, she said of the situation. “For this island as a whole taking two different approaches within such a small landmass, it's crazy.”

Other industries

While some pubs in the Republic had voluntarily closed already, it wasn’t until Sunday - after footage emerged of venues rammed with people over the St Patrick’s day weekend - the government in Dublin ordered the nationwide closure of all pubs.

Many remain open across Northern Ireland, yet some have decided to shut unilaterally. The Sunflower, a popular bar in the centre of Belfast, announced on the weekend that they would be closing until further notice - to the praise of many on social media.

“We decided to go ahead and close for the safety of staff and customers,” said Susie Magee, a manager at the bar. She said they had to take the action unilaterally in face of government inaction.

While the Sunflower have said that staffs’ pay will be covered, many others who are closing are not following suit. The Beannchor Group, which operates several pubs and hotels, have announced the temporary layoff of up to 800 staff.

Similar pressures have meant that many public and private facilities are closing. City councils-owned buildings in cities across the North - including community centres and leisure pitches - have closed, with additional announcements on a daily basis.

Different approaches

This issue has been illustrative of the different approaches taken in the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland has been following the advice coming from Westminster, as well as advice from Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, that it is not yet the time to order widespread closures of public facilities.

As explained in this helpful article from The Atlantic’s science editor, London’s approach is that the peak of the pandemic is still weeks away, and thus the time hadn’t come yet for stricter measures. This approach has been widely criticised, the UK is largely out of step with other countries. Indeed, France has threatened to not allow in people from the UK because of their approach.

In the Republic of Ireland, the approach is more in line with other nations, though not on the scale of those in, say, France. Sinn Féin and DUP leaders, who are in a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland recently resumed after a 3-year hiatus, are also on diverging opinions on when to shut schools, universities, and other public places.

Sinn Féin’s leader in the North, Michelle O'Neill, has been calling for school closures since last week. Her counterpart, Arlene Foster said closures will only happen when medical authorities recommended it.

Over the weekend leaders, health ministers and chief medical officers from both sides of the border met in Armagh to discuss cooperation, and discussions are ongoing.

A message noted by many in both jurisdictions, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, is that COVID-19 ‘knows no borders’ and that an all-island approach was necessary.

"It is essential that we adopt an all-island approach to this crisis. The measures being introduced to contain the spread of COVID-19 will only work if they are in place on both sides of the border.” said Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald on Monday, citing the all-island approach taken during the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001.

She said in separate comments that the approach taken by London was ‘wrong’, ‘dangerous and reckless’.

The Irish Association of Emergency Medicine stated that it was ‘illogical’ that on an island the size of Ireland there would be two different approaches to the virus.

"It’s crazy that a distance of a few hundred years should determine the approach taken" to COVID-19, the association’s spokesperson Dr Fergal Hickey said.