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Stormont Executive takes reckless turn on pandemic

15 November 2020

For a long time Stormont has stood as a byword for sectarianism, corruption and incompetence. Under the pressure of the coronavirus crisis these features of the political institutions have been elevated to new levels.  The past six months has seen political leaders breach Covid regulations; parties retain support grants that were mistakenly paid into their bank accounts; advice from health officials rejected; the representatives of medical professionals subjected to personalised attacks; and a minister claim that one community was primarily responsible for the spread of the virus.  However the goings on within the Stormont Executive last week, over whether to extend or relax Covid regulations, have manged to top all of that.  If the situation wasn’t so serious it would be comical.  Yet the decisions made by government do have consequences and what has been agreed upon this week is likely to have very severe consequences for public health.

The origins of this week’s debacle go back to the 16 October when the Executive agreed to the introduction of enhanced restrictions in response to the resurgence of the virus.  At that time Northern Ireland had the highest infection rates of any region in Europe.  Deaths were again occurring on a daily basis and pressure on the health service was building with an increasing number of Covid related hospital admissions.  While the Executive did introduce restrictions they fell short of the six week shutdown of schools and hospitality businesses recommended by health officials.  Schools would close for two weeks (which was in effect an extension of the mid term break); bars would close completely; and restaurants and cafes reduced to take away services.  These restrictions were also designed to default - after a four week period - to those in place prior to the resurgence.  So from the outset these measures were compromised in terms of their scope and duration. Yet four weeks on the DUP and various commercial interests were calling for “compromise” and a “balanced” approach as if this wasn’t already the case with the current regime.

Even back in October it was clear that many in the DUP were opposed to these limited measures. At the time the DUP minister Edwin Poots claimed his party did not support them.  He accompanied this with a sectarian outburst about nationalists being primarily responsible for the spread of the virus.  And it was not just Poots.  Over the course of the last month an increasing number of prominent DUP figures have publicly criticised the Executive’s current strategy.  This included a highly personalised attack by the DUP’s Sammy Wilson on the chair of the local branch of the BMA after he called for bars and restaurants to remain closed.   The MP Ian Paisley Jnr criticised a proposal to allow restaurants to reopen but not serve alcohol while MLA Paul Frew described restrictions as an act of vandalism against businesses.  While commentators tried to write off these figures as mavericks it is now clear that they were putting forward the view of the DUP as a party.  They were never contradicted or censured by the leadership and last week - during the discussions on easing or continuing the restrictions - the DUP was arguing the same position.

On the Friday (6th Nov) prior to the lapse of the current restrictions the health minster brought a proposal to the Executive for a two week extension.  However, the decision on this was put off to the following Monday.  When that proposal was put again to the Executive on Monday it was blocked by the DUP through the deployment of the cross community voting device despite the other four parties voting in favour.  The next day the DUP put its own proposal for the easing of restrictions which would have seen cafes and restaurants open from Friday (13th Nov) but without serving alcohol, and also hairdressers and beauticians to get back to business on the same date.  Also from that date, under this plan, hotels would be able to serve food and alcohol to residents but licensed premises would stay shut until November 27th.  The other parties voted this down while the DUP once again used its veto to block an amended proposal from the health minister to extend restrictions for just one week.  On the Thursday a hybrid proposal brokered by the Alliance party - which extended restrictions for a week but also set a timetable for re-opening of businesses - was approved by the Executive.  The DUP, UUP and Alliance voted in favour while Sinn Fein voted against and the SDLP abstained.

This was hailed as a compromise but that public health policy should be determined by a political fix really illustrates the dangerously flawed decision making within the Executive. It was also the case that the so-called compromise was skewed towards the DUP’s demand for arbitrary dates for the reopening of businesses that are completely unconnected to any indicators of the status of the pandemic.   The implication is that easing will occur even in a deteriorating situation.  The DUP’s mantra of “learning to live with Covid” is just another version of the pseudo science of “herd immunity”.  In this they are closely aligned with other right wing parties such as the Republicans in the US.  However, given that the DUP is right wing on every issue, from the economy to the environment, it is hardly a surprise that they should adopt the most right wing position on the pandemic.  What is more disturbing is that such a dangerous proposition is accommodated by other parties to such an extent that it becomes government policy.

If the arguments over the Covid restrictions reveal the rabid character of the DUP they also expose the insincerity of Sinn Fein.  The media interviews given by Michelle O’Neill over the weekend prior to the lapse of restrictions indicate that Sinn Fien were on board with the proposals for the reopening of the hospitality sector - she talked about a phased reopening of bars and restaurants and floated the idea of premises opening but not serving alcohol.  At the time of these interviews she was already aware of the recommendation from health officials for a two week extension of the closure of the hospitality sector.  Indeed, the health minister had presented such a proposal at the Friday meeting of the Executive where a decision was put off to the following week.

There has been speculation over the reason Sinn Fein changed its position over the course of a day (whether they woke up to the implications of what they and agreed to or were being brought into alignment with the position of the party In the south).  But it really doesn’t matter as they were not prepared to fight for it.  When it came to the crunch they accepted a decision being imposed by the unionist parties within the Executive.  Their vote against was merely tokenism.  If Sinn Fein was serious why didn’t they employ the same cross community device that the DUP had used to block the the extension of the current restrictions.  It may have faced criticism that this was an abuse of process but if you really believed that the Executive was set on a course ruinous to public health wouldn’t you use every means at your disposal to stop it?  The reality is that Sinn Fein are totally committed to the political institutions and the patronage that flows from them.   They are prepared to accept any provocation or disastrous policy decision in order to keep the system going.  The idea that they moderate the right wing tendencies of the DUP - let alone pose some form of opposition - has once again been exposed as a myth.

What has also been exposed is the flimsiness of power-sharing.  Whilst in theory there is equality within the Executive in practice unionists can force their will on the whole of government.  The DUP can exercise its veto power with impunity while a similar move by nationalists would have brought the institutions crashing down. That neither Sinn Fein nor the SDLP dared deploy a veto - instead registering only a token no vote or an abstention - shows that those parties, for all their rhetoric about equality, know this to be the case.  They are determined to avoid a repeat of their mishandling of RHI scandal when the institutions were lost.  So at a point of crisis - such as the current one around the pandemic - power-sharing gives way to majority rule.  The role of the non-aligned Alliance party is to provide political cover for this.

While much of the coverage has centred on the maneuvering within the Stormont Executive the most substantive issue - that of how to bring the spread of the virus under control - has been lost.  It has almost been forgotten that the restrictions under discussion were introduced in response to a rapid resurgence of the coronavirus that had seen reporting of cases rise to over one thousand a day.  At that time daily deaths were in low single figures.  So has the situation improved?  The answer to that question is a resounding NO.  While there has been a drop in cases to an average of around five hundred a day that is still very high number.  Moreover, the daily case numbers have plateaued at this figure rather than continuing to fall.  This has been the trend since the return of schools two weeks ago.  In terms of hospital admissions and deaths the situation is much worse. On the day the enhanced restrictions were introduced there were four deaths and just over 200 patients in hospital with Covid.   Today there are 441 people with Covid-19 being treated in hospitals across Northern Ireland (47 of them in intensive care and 35 on ventilators).  Seven out of ten hospitals are operating beyond capacity. The number of deaths reported daily is now in double figures.  In the whole month of October there were 135 deaths while in just the first half of November there has been 148.  This indicates that the current compromise restrictions aren’t working.  Now the Executive has taken the decision to relax them even further!  The consequence of this will be higher levels of illness, greater pressures on the health service and inevitably more deaths.

The extent of the failure of the Stormont Executive is illustrated when compared directly with the south which introduced its much stronger Level 5 restrictions around the same time.  Here the number of daily cases has fallen from an average of around one thousand to 400.  There are currently 249 Covid-19 patients in hospital (of which 31 are in ICU) while the daily number of deaths is in single figures.  In terms of absolute figures the south is doing significantly better.  However, when relative population size is factored in the contrast is even starker.  For example, on the metric of Covid related deaths, the rate in the northern state since the second wave of the virus is running at four times that of the rate in the south.  The fact that the border counties (Donegal in particular) aren’t doing as well as other regions suggests that there has been spread from the north.

This again highlights the need for an all-Ireland approach yet so far the level of co-ordination between the Stormont administration and the Dublin government has been limited.  At this point the approaches north and south are increasingly diverging.  For example, currently non essential retail is open in the north but closed in the south.  If the north goes ahead with further easing of restrictions as planned then, in a couple of weeks, bars and restaurants will be open in the north but still closed in the south.  This will create an incentive for the movement of people back and forth across the border that has the potential to spread the virus.  As an island Ireland has natural advantages in combatting a pandemic but these have been fatally undermined by partition.

Lock-downs aren’t a solution to the pandemic.  At best they are a short term measure to bring a surging virus under control.  Once it has been suppressed the means to maintain control is through an effective system of test and trace.  In the period prior to mass vaccination this is the only strategy that can allow for any sustained revival of the economy and a return (to the extent that it is possible) to normal life.  There are legitimate concerns about the underlying weaknesses of the health service; the scaling back of non-Covid services; or the depressing effect of restrictions on the economy. However, the arguments that accompany such concerns imply a trade off between different areas of public health or between health and the economy.  They avoid the fundamental point that the virus is the primary problem in all of this.  It is only through suppressing the virus and bringing it under control that pressures on the health service can be relieved and the level of economic activity be increased.  This is the starting point from which everything else follows. Indeed. it was the attempts to rush through this earlier in the year which have caused a second wave of the pandemic or at least made it more severe than it should otherwise have been.

With its recent decision on easing restrictions the Stormont Executive has taken a reckless turn - the consequences of which will be higher levels of illness and more deaths. If things deteriorate further in the coming weeks the Executive will be forced by events to adopt more draconian measures for a longer duration, bringing about the very situation the DUP claimed it was seeking to avoid.  The north will be be in a cycle of lockdown and release that will be utterly ruinous to both health and the economy.  One of the arguments (often made by the trade union leadership) for the devolved institutions was that they would offer workers some defence from austerity.  That argument was disproved long ago.  But now we are in a much worse scenario where those institutions, far from offering a defence, are, through their inherent dysfunction, posing a threat to the lives and livelihoods of workers.  Is there any doubt that they should be swept away?

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