Northern Ireland news

Medic warns of impact of coronavirus spike in border regions amid calls for Northern Ireland health service to improve 'appalling' data collation

Dr Gabriel Scally has warned that any delay in implementing an all-Ireland approach to the pandemic will "cost lives" Picture Mark Marlow.
Seanín Graham

A PUBLIC health expert has described data provided by the Northern Ireland health service on Covid-19 as a "black hole" - and warned that politicians are taking "enormous risks" with people's lives by delaying an all-island approach to the pandemic.

Dr Gabriel Scally also said the high incidence rates of coronavirus in two border counties in the Republic were a "major problem" as we "attempt to get out of lockdown".

The medic, who is President of the Epidemiology and Public Health section of the Royal Society of Medicine, said widespread community testing needed to be prioritised, particularly in border regions in Northern Ireland.

Latest figures released by the Republic's government - which give a breakdown by county following hospital and community testing - show there are 626 cases in Cavan and 373 in Monaghan.

Co Cavan has the highest incidence rate of coronavirus in the south per 100,000 of the population, followed by Dublin and Monaghan.

Dr Scally, who has been an outspoken critic of the Executive's decision to follow Whitehall's lead and abandon community testing in the north last month, said there must be better information sharing between politicians on prevalence rates before any lockdown exit strategy begins.

Read More: High number of cases along border 'could be due to super spreader'

"The issue is how do we find out why there are such high numbers of cases in border counties. Maybe there's spillover from the north. Who knows?," he told The Irish News.

"Or, if it isn't spillover from the north, the north should be worried about spillover from the south. Either way there needs to be a really good discussion this week. There's a north/south ministerial meeting coming up this week and it has to be on the agenda because we can't go on like this.

"In order to able to discuss this issue of the border counties such as Louth, Cavan and Monaghan and the high incidence rates, you really need the community data and cases per head of population in regions likes Armagh and Fermanagh etc. However, this isn't happening.

"Secondly, the data in the north is appalling. It's hard to know what information the health service has because they don't publish it. Basically, the only place you can get reliable information is from the Northern Ireland Research and Statistics Agency (NISRA) which only deals with data from death certificates. Its presentation and analysis of data is exemplary. But for the rest, as far as the public is concerned, data on Covid-19 in Northern Ireland is a black hole."

However, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride has said there is no evidence to suggest there has been a “leakage” of the Covid-19 infection across the border.

“I don’t think that relates to spill over across the border one way or the other,” he told Stormont’s Covid-19 briefing.

The Republic's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan also said he does not think the high number of Covid-19 cases in border counties was linked to people with the virus travelling in from the north.

In an RTÉ radio interview yesterday, Dr Scally pointed to the idea of a "super spreader" in border regions but said this could not be confirmed until investigations and comprehensive contact tracing are carried out.

"What we have seen from the outbreaks elsewhere and in other countries is that you can get super spreaders. These are people who may not have all of the symptoms and may not be terribly ill but spread the virus with a very heavy virus load."

"If you get one or two of these people, they can affect a lot of people in a local area so maybe there is a super spreader around - that could be one of the reasons."

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