Just three weeks ago, an Irish auditor told us that although Covid cases in Ireland are increasing, “we are still in a good position compared to our neighbors”. Not that you would guess from the radio broadcast of the Dublin media right now.
The 14-day incidence rate of infection in Ireland is currently 80.4 per 100,000, which is the second lowest in the EU. Only in distant Iceland is it better with a rate of 49.3 cases.
Yesterday, the Irish Times noted that 3,394 cases of Covid-19 were reported here by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on Saturday, “almost twice as many as before in one day”.
In another piece:
… The effects of Christmas festivities on the rising Covid-19 cases are up to 15 times worse than pessimistic predictions made by public health officials a few weeks ago lead the response to the pandemic.
The reasons for this are not clear, but the key factors are likely to be an open Christmas (which ended early on December 22nd) and the fact that we are in the middle of winter. Aside from a vaccine, all you have is suppression.
What effect the earlier than planned return to level 5 will have in a holiday season with little commercial mixing is a guess. Given this big wave, closing was probably all it could do in the short term.
The independent report Professor Philip Nolan, chair of the modeling group for the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), said hospital admissions are now doubling every seven to ten days.
All of this has now resulted in a political Donnybrook of almighty proportions. I have not been inclined to cause any government (or local government) difficulty in how to deal with the progression of this most difficult to predict disease.
Gap between the government and its advisors appears to have led the official framework to be ignored when a six-week lockdown on level 5 was enforced in October and November, despite data showing modest improvement at level 3.
It’s easy to panic with so much at stake, but it’s also important to learn and move on. As my friend John Kellden noted, data should “uncover the options we need rather than use data to amplify what we already have.”
Northern Ireland was not a model of virtue either. It took the executive almost three weeks to respond to numbers going through the roof in the northwest and spilling over to Donegal. Masterful inactivity. But it was also relatively happy.
Given that Northern Ireland has reported more than 11,000 cases in the past seven days (i.e. twice as many as the week before), as Peter notes, it’s not like we live in parallel universes:
Out of NI, Scotland, Wales and the English regions, London had the most COVID-19 cases per 100,000 in the past 7 days. However, Northern Ireland saw the largest increase by far (166% in one week, Scotland in 2nd place with 87%). NI now equal to South East England. pic.twitter.com/fzal9C8zVF
– Peter Donaghy (@peterdonaghy) January 3, 2021
The main divergence is not in the burgeoning numbers, but in the prospect of an ultimate exit from the grip of the disease. North and South are currently diverging strongly here. “Lockdowns”, as Eoin O’Malley says, “offer a false floor”.
Pfizer has said the vaccine was developed on the basis of two doses 21 days apart. However, the data suggest that a single dose, starting from a single dose, could offer protection of up to 90 percent against serious illnesses due to Covid-19.
Both parts of the island now have vaccines. However, the South has been working hard to put in place the logistics needed to make it difficult to distribute the Pfizer vaccine to those who need it on the front lines of this crisis. Oxford AstroZ is only available in NI.
This is because the EU has yet to come to signing the latter, which is causing discomfort in Germany, where they started doing their own business against the convention. France is likely to follow suit, too, if it doesn’t get moving soon.
Money can move mountains. Through a combination of small, world-class, world-class health services and general mobilization of scarce resources, Israel has now vaccinated approximately 41% of its population over 60. The problem is, Ireland doesn’t have it.
O’Malley again …
Ireland is therefore dependent on the EU to be supplied, which it cannot control.
We can control how quickly we use what we have. The US experience suggests that getting the vaccines into people’s arms is a bigger problem than getting their hands on the vaccines at all.
Ireland’s ability to do this part can be measured against all other EU countries. We would do well to follow Mike Ryan’s advice: “Speed trumps perfection”.
I have no doubt we will catch up, but in Northern Ireland, where roughly 80% of all nursing homes are already visited by vaccine teams [Whatever that means? – Ed] The next (hopefully last) phase of flattening the curve has started well.
The recent decline in the proportion of UK COVID-19 cases among those over 80 has flattened since Christmas. It seems like an open question to what extent vaccinations and / or Christmas mixes will drive this forward. pic.twitter.com/ZSsOI5oKrZ
– Peter Donaghy (@peterdonaghy) January 3, 2021
When you remove the vulnerable from the equation, Covid becomes less of a threat to the general public. What are we doing about a backward South as Northern Ireland continues to focus on nursing homes and the elderly population in general?
During this crisis, some unfriendly (and unfair) ideas were spread, like closing the border or enforcing a single all-island policy in strangely inarticulate ways. But something needs to be done about divergence.
The Northern Irish executive’s response has been sluggish to say the least, especially when faced with issues that could affect the constituency (and not just the floor funeral) for individual players at the table.
If we’re lucky, the EU will get its collective fingers out and let the republic get on with the Oxford vaccine (or as much of it as allotted). However, Northern Ireland could face an ultimate dilemma in the next few months.
Are you closing the border or are you asking the UK government to send what it can afford from the cheaper and easier-to-use Oxford vaccine to the Republic to protect the free movement of people between the islands through the common travel area?
I bet they’ll do their best to ignore the problem and hope the stalemate holds out until the Republic finally catches up. Unfortunately, that’s too often a leadership role these days.
The HVesna photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA
Mick is the founding editor of Slugger. He has written articles on the impact of the internet on politics and the media and is a regular guest and speaker across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty