Executive business closure decisions questioned after scientific data released

The closure of a range of businesses has been questioned after it emerged Stormont ministers were advised the moves would have a low impact on infection rates.

The assessment on the closure of hairdressers and beauticians is contained in a scientific paper that guided the Executive’s recent decisions on the introduction of a four-week circuit-break for the region.

It was published on Tuesday evening as part of an initiative by the Department of Health to increase transparency around the decision-making process.

The paper listed a range of actions available to ministers, setting out the impact of each both on transmission rates and on wider society.

The impact was quantified in terms of the potential reduction in the crucial reproduction number (R number), which is the average number of people an infected person infects.

Ministers are endeavouring to reduce the R number to below one.

Last week, close contact services such as hairdressers and beauticians were among a range of businesses required to close for four weeks.

The Executive paper said the move would have a low impact on Covid-19 transmission, with a potential reduction in the R number by 0.05.

However, the paper said the closures would have a high social and economic impact, warning it would disproportionately affect low-income workers and women.

Other steps that would have had a greater projected impact on the R number – such as the closure of churches (estimated reduction of R by 0.1) – were not taken by the Executive.

The paper said current closure of bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants was likely to have a “moderate impact”, reducing R by between 0.1 and 0.2.

Part of the evidence base included a reference to multiple “anecdotal reports” of outbreaks linked to bars in the UK and beyond.

The paper said a curfew, which ministers introduced last month, was likely to have a “marginal impact”.

Coronavirus – Wed Oct 14, 2020
Bars in Belfast are closed for four weeks (Brian Lawless/PA)

In terms of the non-Covid impact, the paper again warned of a high impact caused by a loss of income for hospitality workers.

Simon Hamilton, chief executive of business representative body Belfast Chamber, branded the evidence as “flimsy” and said the paper posed “massive questions” for the Executive.

“Why did Ministers close hospitality and close contact retail when they knew it would have such a low impact on the R number, a high impact incomes and a disproportionate effect on the poor and women?” he tweeted.

Mr Hamilton, a former DUP minister in the Executive, described the evidence published on Tuesday night as “absolutely shocking”.

The Executive paper said the closure of all schools would have a “moderate impact” on R, reducing it by between 0.2 and 0.5.

It said the non-Covid impact would be high due to the disruption to young people’s education.

Coronavirus – Wed Sep 30, 2020
Chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said the evidence bank would help inform public debate on the pandemic (Presseye/PA)

Schools are currently closed for two weeks after the mid-term Halloween break was extended by a week.

The paper said the move that would have the greatest impact on transmission would be the reintroduction of a stay-at-home order similar to the first lockdown.

It said that move had been shown to reduce R from 2.7 to 0.6 during the first lockdown.

The Executive paper was part of a bank of evidence papers published by the Department of Health.

The bank includes reports from Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), weekly papers on the R number in Northern Ireland and a variety of other expert assessments.

Commenting on the publication, chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said: “This evidence bank brings documents on key Covid-related issues together in the one place.

“It will be updated as appropriate and will help to inform public debate and discussion on Northern Ireland’s response to the pandemic.”

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