Northern Ireland unveils new curbs as Covid tests political consensus

Northern Ireland’s devolved government on Wednesday imposed a series of tougher coronavirus restrictions as a surge in infection rates in the region piles pressure on its divided political leaders.

Following a late session of the Northern Ireland assembly, which reached agreement on the new curbs in the early hours, first minister Arlene Foster unveiled a package of lockdown measures designed to tackle an alarming second wave of the disease.

The package includes extending school half-term holidays for two weeks from October 19, and from Friday closing all pubs and restaurants except for takeaway and delivery services and the shutdown of close-contact services such as hairdressers.

Prompted by growing concern from health officials, Ms Foster said the steps were necessary to “turn down transmission rates” of the virus and to remind “each and every one of us” of the need to return to the social-distancing measures that featured in the first lockdown in the spring.

“We fully appreciate that this will be difficult and worrying news for a lot of people,” she added. “The executive has taken this decision because it is necessary . . . We do not take this step lightly.”

The executive, led by the pro-UK Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin Irish nationalists, weathered the first wave of the virus with relatively low transmission. That was attributed to the region’s island location and the fact that many people live in rural, low-density areas. 

But the second wave has worsened in the past fortnight, presenting ministers with unsavoury trade-offs between new measures to contain the disease and the inevitability of further economic damage.

The pandemic is at its most severe in areas straddling the land border with the Irish Republic, underscoring the need for co-ordination with Dublin that is sensitive for unionists, who prefer the region to take its lead from London. 

Michelle O’Neill, left, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, with first minister Arlene Foster and UK prime minister Boris Johnson in Belfast in August © Brian Lawless/Pool/Getty

The DUP and Sinn Féin have tried to maintain a common front in the face of the resurgence, after a bitter row during the summer over deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill’s attendance at the funeral of a former Irish Republican Army commander that breached Covid-19 restrictions. 

But there have been growing tensions between the leaders and their parties over coronavirus restrictions. Sinn Féin has pushed for “decisive action” but powerful DUP figures such as the party’s Westminster leader Jeffrey Donaldson objected to a wider economic shutdown. 

Economic activity in the region dropped 13.6 per cent in the three months to June, which the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency described as a record fall to an “all-time low” in the composite economic index that serves as a proxy for gross domestic product. 

Whatever the next phase brings, it is clear that a succession of local and regional restrictions in recent weeks have not succeeded in halting the virus. Coronavirus has claimed the lives of 598 people who tested positive for the disease.

Ian Young, the region’s chief scientific adviser, has said experts “don’t fully understand” the reasons for the surge, although he noted last week that Liverpool and Manchester then had “a very similar incidence or higher incidence” than parts of Northern Ireland. Still, soaring infection rates have been attributed to transmission within the community after the regional lockdown was lifted during the summer.

Covid-19 infections soar as Northern Ireland is hit by new outbreak. Chart showing new daily confirmed cases (7-day rolling average) is fast approaching 1000

Stuart Elborn, medicine professor at Queen’s University Belfast, who sits on the Northern Ireland executive’s scientific advisory panel, said infections were spread through all age cohorts from children to people in their seventies, the age group most at risk from the disease.

“My conclusion is that this is widespread community transmission now that’s been driven by internal, inside space socialisation whether that’s in houses or in other recreational settings — pubs, restaurants, clubs, that sort of thing,” Prof Elborn added. 

Health minister Robin Swann has bemoaned “a general complacency” among people, saying health warnings are falling on “too many” deaf ears. Telling reporters last week that dire warnings about the virus were “unfortunately coming true”, he hit out at a minority putting others at risk by flouting social-distancing rules. “It’s what I would now call a wilful complacency. In fact it’s a two-fingered salute to the rest of us.”

Wednesday’s tightening of restrictions in the region follows 6,286 new cases over seven days — an infection rate of 334 per 100,000 of the population in that period, up from 228 in the previous seven-day period. 

Along with the rest of Northern Ireland, people in Belfast are braced for further restrictions as Covid-19 infections soar © Paul McErlane/FT

Steve Aiken, leader of the Ulster Unionists and a party colleague of Mr Swann, pointed to rising pressure on the region’s health service. “A month ago we had one Covid patient in [an intensive care] bed. One month later we have 22 and we’ve only got 19 spaces left in [intensive care units]. Do the maths.”

The virus crisis is particularly serious in Northern Ireland’s second city, Derry, known also as Londonderry, and Strabane, a nearby town in county Tyrone, where the infection rate per 100,000 was almost 970 in the seven days to October 12.

The rate had risen from just under 620 one week earlier, despite local restrictions that came into force on October 1 that confined pubs and restaurants to outdoor dining or takeaway service. Comparison with English coronavirus hotspots shows 904 infections per 100,000 in Nottingham in the seven days to October 8; about 650 in Liverpool; 526 in Newcastle upon Tyne; and 495 in Manchester.

Derry and Strabane straddle the border with County Donegal in the Irish Republic, which has similarly high rates in some areas. Infections are also high in border counties Cavan and Monaghan, but at lower levels than in Northern Ireland. Dublin signalled on Wednesday that it may tighten restrictions in border counties following Stormont’s move.

Many people in such areas cross the frontier daily for work or family reasons, spurring concern about the potential to increase Covid-19 transmission between the jurisdictions. Last month the chief medical officers in Belfast and Dublin issued a rare joint statement in which they urged people not to cross the border and asked employers on both sides to make “every effort” to facilitate staff working from home.

Since the second wave began the executive has confined itself to measures aimed at keeping the economy open to the greatest extent possible. But top Stormont officials say the devolved government lacks the money to fund business compensation for a wider “circuit-breaker”, which would go beyond the measures announced on Wednesday.

“If we get into a ‘circuit-breaker’ scenario, that’s something we wouldn’t have the resources for,” said a senior Stormont figure. 


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