NI approach to pandemic should be less inward-looking, virologist says

Northern Ireland’s approach to the pandemic should be more global and less inward-looking, one of the country’s leading virologists has said.

The race between different countries to deliver vaccines needs to recognise that people will have to travel and trade together, Dr Lindsay Broadbent added.

Transport of goods and citizens between Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and the Irish Republic means infection rates cannot be compared to isolated New Zealand, the Queen’s University Belfast academic added.

She said: “We have to be realistic that this virus is worldwide, it has spread worldwide, you cannot just have an inward-looking approach to this pandemic.

“Countries in general have to look more globally, not just to their own borders but across the world if we want to be able to travel internationally again safely, if we want it to be safer for transport and hauliers.

“We need to make sure that this pandemic is targeted on a globalised basis.”

Dr Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, has previously expressed concern about Northern Ireland’s contact tracing system and suggested joint testing with the Republic would track outbreaks more effectively.

He has claimed disease among livestock would prompt much more seamless co-operation between administrations north and south of the border.

Reservations over data sharing have stymied the tracking of arrivals from abroad through Dublin airport into Northern Ireland to check they are self-isolating.

Ireland has imposed controls on travel from the UK while Northern Ireland has not.

Lockdowns have proceeded at different paces and on different timetables.

Politicians on both sides of the Irish border have at different points during the pandemic raised concern over higher infection rates or slower official responses in parts of the neighbouring jurisdiction.

Northern Ireland’s coalition Government has suffered internal strains over management of the pandemic.

Sinn Fein and the DUP harboured major differences last year over the pace of reopening the economy, shutting schools and holding exams.

A Belfast republican funeral with hundreds of onlookers and attended by Sinn Fein leaders halted joint press conferences between Stormont leaders Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill last summer.

Mother and baby homes report
Mother and baby homes report

Ireland’s new administration has also been consumed by the emergency and lost a minister after he attended a golf society dinner last summer despite restrictions on gathering.

Ministers have also faced flak from some quarters after going against professional public health advice on intensifying movement restrictions.

At the weekend, Taoiseach Micheal Martin prompted unionist ire after suggesting Northern Ireland was not testing enough for the UK variant of Covid-19, which has become the dominant strain in the south.

Ms Broadbent, a research fellow at Queen’s school of medicine, said: “One benefit of Northern Ireland being associated with the UK is that there has been access to some very good protocols such as UK-wide genomic surveying work, which helped identify the UK variant and South African variant.

“Equally, there are a lot of good things coming from the communication between Northern Ireland and the south of Ireland.”

She said protocols could have been put in place to minimise the possibility of new variants entering the island.

“If there was screening at airports and ports, both north and south, you would have been able to test people before they left their country of origin and quarantine on arrival in Northern Ireland or Ireland, with possibly a second test before quarantine was over to make sure that they were not positive.

“That is a big ask and at this stage would be difficult to implement.”