Jake O'Kane: A perfect storm of incompetence has resulted in Northern Ireland's dramatic Covid spike

Politicians argue they've a ‘balance' to reach between lives and livelihoods, but until countries supress Covid, they've no chance of an economic recovery

As a society, we’ve been left rudderless by our policy makers at a time of existential risk. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Jake O'Kane

WELL, here we go again. I doubt anyone was surprised when the four-week lockdown was announced; indeed, many would argue it should have been implemented earlier. The World Health Organisation stressed that in dealing with Covid-19, governments could never act too early, only too late.

When you consider the infection rate in Northern Ireland was sitting at 34 in August, 179 in September and 1,217 last week, you don’t need a PhD in statistics to recognise Covid was spiralling out of control.

"We are following scientific advice," was the mantra repeated by Boris Johnson to deflect every question since the start of the pandemic. Yet, this week, we learned he ignored scientists who proposed a four-week lockdown to ‘short circuit’ the ever-increasing Covid infections across the UK.

Not that Boris is alone. The Irish government also broke with their scientists when they recommended the country move to level 5 of its ‘Living with Covid-19’ plan, meaning a return to a full lockdown in everything but name. The Irish government rejected this and instead moved to level 3. The Republic’s chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, has said the situation had deteriorated further following that decision.

It’s obvious, therefore, we’ve reached an important pivot regarding decision-making around Covid. Politicians argue they’ve a ‘balance’ to reach between lives and livelihoods, as they have a responsibility not only to the health of their citizens but also the economy.

No such divide exists as, until countries supress Covid, they’ve no chance of an economic recovery. This has been proved in countries such as New Zealand and China where strict measures, taken in good time, supressed Covid to such a degree those societies are almost back to normal.

On October 14 New Zealand recorded two new cases of Covid. No, that’s not a typo – they’ve also only had 1,872 cases in total, with 25 deaths in a population of five million. In the same week, the Derry City and Strabane district recorded 976 new cases.

The glaring fault lines in this government’s approach to Covid has been its shambolic test, track and isolate regime. The UK’s much-vaunted ‘world beating’ test and trace has become an international joke, with patchy testing and virtually no tracking or isolation.

On top of this, the fragmented approach across the UK has led to widespread confusion among the public about the ever-changing regulations. This perfect storm of incompetence has resulted in a dramatic spike in infections across Northern Ireland.

For weeks, as the virus surged in the north west, there was no political reaction, leaving that region to jump from the bottom to the top of Europe’s infection table. This week the Mater Hospital Covid centre was forced to transfer 10 ICU patients to the City Hospital and, at the time of writing, the Nightingale Hospital at the City has reopened.

As a society we desperately needed a united front from our politicians but, as so often before, we instead got haggling and in-fighting. An assembly emergency meeting last Tuesday night was cancelled at the last minute as Sinn Féin and the DUP locked horns. As usual, the three other parties in the executive were excluded from the decision-making process as the ‘big two’ bartered restrictions.

While politicians argue the decisions they face are extremely complex, they pale in comparison to the decisions medics on our ICU wards will be forced to make if they get it wrong.

Health Minister Robin Swann, barely containing his anger, reminded the assembly "it matters little how many Nightingale hospitals are opened if there aren’t the nurses and doctors to staff them".

With an ever-increasing demand for ICU beds, our doctors could yet face the nightmare experienced by Italian doctors in April, when decisions on treatment were made not on the basis of need, but on the likelihood of a patient’s recovery.

Recognising the ethical dilemma faced by medics, the BMA issued guidance around Covid-19 treatment, stating: "Health professionals may be obliged to withdraw treatment from some patients to enable treatment of other patients with a higher survival probability."

As a society, we’ve been left rudderless by our policy makers at a time of existential risk. What can we do? I’d argue now is the time to take personal responsibility; at least the scientific advice has remained constant – keep your distance, wash your hands, wear a mask and, if infected, isolate.

Hopefully the words of Seamus Heaney may provide some comfort to us all: "If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere."

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