- 24 Mar 20
As pointed out on hotpress.com already this week, differences between Government policies in the UK and Ireland highlight just how crazy the existence of two different regimes on the island of Ireland really is.
Yesterday, Boris Johnson announced a draconian lockdown in the UK. It is, by any standards, a crass and in many ways horribly revealing u-turn, the effect of which is to underline just how absurd and wrong-headed the policies pursued by the Tory government to date, in relation to coronavirus, have been.
Not much more than a week ago, the Prime Minister – flanked by the two senior UK health officials in charge of the UK’s response to Covid-19, chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, and chief medical adviser, Chris Whitty – merrily talked about building up what he called ‘herd immunity’ among the British population. Around the world, experts looked at one another aghast. Were these fucking guys for real?
It seemed that they were. A lot of people swallowed hard and thought: they haven’t a clue.
There was a very strong sense at the time that this was being seen by the Svengali behind Boris as an opportunity for the allegedly indomitable Spirit of Brexit to reveal itself afresh in all its solitary glory. All over Europe, looking at how deeply embedded coronavirus was in Italy, and its devastating impact there, commentators were virtually unanimous that the UK’s apparent failure to take the spread of the virus seriously would inevitably put British people’s lives at risk. The only question was how many? And how soon? But, as the barely hidden perma-smirk on Boris Johnson’s face implied, this was an opportunity to show that British exceptionalism would prevail. Of course it would.
He didn’t say, ‘We know better’. But there was no mistaking the underlying sentiment. Those damned fool Europeans, as usual, are making too much of a fuss of this. We know what the Italians are like: they're awful flocking eejits letting so many catch the bloody thing. Nothing like that is going to happen here. We’re a humping island for God’s sake.
Go on, punch the air, Boris. Bang fist in palm. Give us some of those indomitable macho hand movements.
The UK prime minister also spoke at the time about developing an antibody test which would enable health officials to identify those people who’d had the virus and recovered. This, he claimed, would be a “game-changer”. But that was not all. “We can turn the tide of the disease in 12 weeks,” he said. “I am absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country."
Not just confident. Absolutely confident. We. In this country. Packing. Off on a holiday to Italy, one assumes.
Number of Fatalities
The policy that Boris Johnson (pictured) and his officials outlined that day was radically different from what was being put into effect, in a blizzard of urgency, elsewhere. If the UK government were right, then it would indeed be a victory for whoever had dreamed up the policy. But if not, how would that affect UK citizens? Where would it all end?
At the same press briefing, Johnson went to some lengths to scotch rumours that bars and pubs would be forced to shut. All of this took place, astonishingly, a mere five days ago.
Two days ago – or was it three?: time flies when you are not having fun – came the first evidence of a complete about-face. The same Boris Johnson stood at the podium for the daily media briefing and announced that restaurants, bars and pubs were indeed being asked to close.
Clearly, the reality of the situation on the ground in the UK was becoming inescapable. The number of confirmed cases was escalating horribly.
To see the escalation, captured in a graph, really is scary. The line traces out a sheer rise: the white cliffs of Dover have nothing on it. No cases had been identified by the beginning of March. By Monday, March 23, there were 6,650 positive tests. Already, the death toll stood at 335: that’s 5% of all cases. There had been 46 new deaths in the previous 24 hours.
All the signs are that the number of fatalities in the UK will continue to accelerate from this relatively high base. It is generally accepted that the UK is about two weeks behind Italy in terms of the spread of the disease. In the long run, the carnage may not be as bad as in Italy, where 6,077 people have died so far – the pattern to date suggests a marginally slower rate of increase in he UK – but the roll-call of fatal casualties will nonetheless be hugely significant.
And there is no doubt that the gravity of the situation has been exacerbated directly as a result of the policies that were adopted by Boris Johnson, his senior adviser Dominic Cummings and other members of the cabinet, including the Minister for Health Nadine Dorries – who has herself tested positive.
So will heads roll, and if so whose?
This is the alarming backdrop to the announcement, made yesterday, of measures by the British government that are far more extreme than those applied to date in Ireland.
The contrast to the bluff front erected a week ago is breath-taking. Then Boris Johnson was gung-ho to the point of arrogance. Now, the Brits have finally copped on that, like the rest of Europe, they are in a doomsday scenario. The result? People instructed to stay at home, and not to go out under any circumstances except when its is absolutely necessary. Gatherings of more than two people who do not live together banned. Businesses deemed 'non-essential’ closed. And so on.
It is a classic case of closing the barn door after the four horsemen of the apocalypse have bolted.
There are strange inconsistencies in the figures being registered by the WHO from different countries. The number of cases per million in the UK is just 98. And yet the deaths stand at 335. In contrast, at 228, there’s over double the number of cases per million in Ireland. And yet the number of deaths here stands at just six – a far smaller number on a per capita basis. At 337, Germany has an even higher number of cases per million of population, but only 123 deaths – a higher rate of fatality than in Ireland but much lower than the UK.
These numbers may tend to level off over the next three months. Then again, they may not. Britain could end up among the biggest disaster areas in Europe, despite the fact that there were weeks, in which the virus was spreading through Europe, when action to mitigate the worst outcomes could have been taken. And if so, will Ireland potentially become a refuge? What will happen to the common travel area? There is a potential nightmare scenario, in which the Irish in Britain take a whole basket-load of new cases across onto this island. Should borders be closed? Things might get very weird indeed.
In contrast to the UK, the response in Ireland has been measured and reasonably effective. There is no room for complacency. But from the outset, the advice being given by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, and by officials at the Department of Health and the HSE has been good, straightforward and relatively timely. There is general agreement, too, that the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Minister for Health Simon Harris have performed well.
In the North, meanwhile, we have been treated to the usual partisan bullshit by Unionist politicians, and by the First Minister Arlene Foster and her buddies in the DUP in particular. A few days ago, they were singing from the same hymn sheet as Boris Johnson, cracking on with keeping the pubs open.
In Derry, bars were offering frontline workers half-price drinks. That they failed to see that this was courting disaster says it all about the contrarian spirit that too often prevails in parts of Ireland, even in the face of scientific evidence. People travel back and forth across the border on a hundred thousand missions a day. If people from Donegal wanted a drink, they could always hop in the car. Maybe even have a designated driver if they were feeling especially virtuous.
For publicans on the Northern side of the border, it was all about making hay, even when the sun wasn’t shining.
What was happening in the South was unnecessarily extreme for Arlene Foster. Three days later, she is grunting approval of Boris Johnson’s draconian lockdown. The Brits are always right even when they are wrong.
The Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, suddenly, was singing from the same hymn sheet. But where were the howls of protest five days ago? Where was the insistence that Northern Ireland should be following the same path as the South?
No Ultimate Winners
For the government in Dublin, all of this poses a further, knotty challenge. However absurd Boris Johnson’s somersault might be, can they afford to be seen to be less radical in the preventative measures taken than the UK? Is it okay to have two regimes on the island, and to be on what might potentially be the wrong side of the lockdown divide?
It is a rapidly evolving story. The likelihood is that further restrictions will be applied from today. As the old song says, 'That’s just the way it is’.
What we can say for sure is that efforts at promoting social distancing in Ireland have not been getting through to a significant number of people. In particular, there is an age issue: groups of young people seem unable to avoid the herd instinct of roaming in groups. They sit around in parks, far less than two metres apart. They play tag rugby. They jostle, push, give one another playful digs and generally lark about as if it is high summer and packing the maximum pleasure into the days before you have to start heading back to school is the natural order of things.
The kids themselves may not be especially vulnerable, but that misses the point: their parents and grandparents are. And so there really is a dilemma for policy-makers here.
There will be pressure to go the whole draconian hog. It may even be the right thing to do.
What is reassuring is that, so far, the authorities have played a game in which there are no ultimate winners, only bigger losers, relatively well and with a consistency and sureness of foot that has been totally missing in Britain. There is no point operating out of any sense of entitlement, however: that is what drove Boris Johnson and his cronies so far up the wrong road. Whatever restrictions are imposed, so be it.
On one point, the UK government have got it more right than the Irish, and over the long haul, this too will prove to be important. The scheme may have holes, but broadly speaking, the decision, announced by Boris Johnson last week, to pay 80% of the wages of people working in the private sector for a three month period at least, up to a max of £2,500 a month, was a good one. Ireland certainly needs to respond in kind.
The Government must strive towards treating people as equals. Workers employed in the private sector are entitled to parity with those who work for the State. That has to be the guiding principle. Agreeing to pay 80% of people’s wages would be a good starting point.
The familiar line is that we are all in this together. Well, we are. And the government must act accordingly.