Northern Ireland

Platform: Loss of control over threats like coronavirus a consequence of Brexit

Flear : 'The growing spread of the 2019-nCoV outbreak occurs just as the UK has left the EU'
Flear : 'The growing spread of the 2019-nCoV outbreak occurs just as the UK has left the EU'

A WOMAN who travelled by plane from northern Italy, via Dublin to Belfast, has been confirmed as the first case of coronavirus in Northern Ireland. Passengers sitting close to the same passenger on the flight have been contacted.

The growing spread of the 2019-nCoV outbreak, which began with reports of several cases of pneumonia on 31 December 2019 by health authorities in Wuhan, China, occurs just as the UK has left the EU.

The spread of the coronavirus to Northern Ireland, via the Republic, underlines the gaps and flawed ideology in the UK government’s stance on the future relationship with the EU and its highly-integrated health protection structures.

At the global level the response to major outbreaks of infectious diseases are based on the International Health Regulations and coordinated by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The EU regime for communicable disease control is coordinated by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm. The latter agency works closely with the WHO’s looser system and plays a central role in EU-wide planning and response to health threats.

The UK has withdrawn from the EU and its institutions and agencies, but continues to participate in the exchange of information on public health threats during the transition period ending on 31 December 2020. The UK will continue to participate in the WHO’s system.

However, future engagement with the EU’s health protection mechanisms remains in doubt due to the UK government’s negotiating position with the EU.

It seems committed to non-alignment with EU single market rules and to avoiding oversight of the future relationship with the EU by the European Court of Justice.

This approach means the UK and EU (which of course includes Ireland) would be unable to exchange much of the data required for effective surveillance, or certain mechanisms to coordinate responses.

It appears the UK government understands this and, according to reports this week it has already ruled out future participation in EU information sharing mechanisms.

Countries beyond the borders of the single market already have to make do with more limited cooperation with EU mechanisms under the WHO’s framework. Further afield, while the USA, Israel, and the centre of the current outbreak, China, cooperate with EU public health mechanisms, it is to a far more limited extent than that between EU member states.

The position of Switzerland underscores the public health implications of the UK’s stance on its future relationship(s) with the EU. In addition to being outside the EU, Switzerland is also outside the single market, and as a consequence is excluded from many components of the EU’s health protection regime.

The emergence of 2019-nCoV has prompted the Swiss government to ask the EU to give it temporary access to data and rapid communication and response mechanisms. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Switzerland will obtain permanent access to these because it does not adopt single market rules automatically.

The highly interconnected nature of daily life on this island, including in relation to public health threats, underscores the vital importance of continuing close cooperation between the UK and EU.

But this does not necessarily ensure ideologies that are antithetical to public health protection will not prevail, as Switzerland’s experience and the UK government’s negotiating position on the future relationship with the EU amply demonstrate.

The UK’s fixation on ‘taking back control’ is more likely to lead to a loss of control over future cross-border public health threats on this island, the UK, and across the European continent as a whole.

Dr Mark Flear, from the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast and the Economic and Social Research Council’s ‘Health Governance After Brexit’