Northern Ireland

Covid-19: Why has Northern Ireland among highest infection rates in world?

A data analysis of Covid-19 infection rates suggests Northern Ireland currently has among the highest in the world. Brendan Hughes asks why the north appears to be particularly struggling in bringing the virus under control

First Minster Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at the Stormont Covid-19 press briefing. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA
First Minster Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at the Stormont Covid-19 press briefing. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA

A STARTLING graph tracking Northern Ireland's performance in tackling Covid-19 has been doing the rounds online in recent days.

An interactive data analysis from the Financial Times allows easy international comparison of countries and regions by showing new confirmed cases in the last seven days per million people.

When Northern Ireland is plotted on the graph, it suggests the north currently has among the worst infection rates in the world.

The figure is larger than the Republic, Britain, the United States and the European Union – and the steep trajectory on the graph ominously suggests the rate is still rising.

Such global comparisons of course come with a myriad of disclaimers and caveats. Countries have very different testing regimes, while smaller nations with broader definitions of cases will look particularly badly affected.

It nonetheless adds to an alarming picture of the resurgent spread of the virus which authorities in Ireland and Britain have been warning about.

Derry and Strabane council area now has the highest Covid-19 infection rate across the north and Britain per 100,000 population.

What is behind this growth of the virus, and why does Northern Ireland appear to be doing particularly badly in bringing it under control?

Part of the sharp rise in cases during this so-called 'second wave' can be attributed to significantly increased testing.

At the peak of the pandemic, only a fraction of the suspected infection numbers were being recorded due to limited testing capacity, which was focused largely on hospital settings. Testing can now be carried out in the community and also targeted at hotspots as required.

It has always been a risk that as lockdown restrictions were relaxed, cases would rise.

Government schemes such as 'eat out to help out' encouraged people back into restaurants, while the increases have coincided with major relaxations such as schools and universities reopening.

It is less clear however why the north is being particularly affected at this time.

Northern Ireland's Covid-related deaths per million people remain below the south and Britain, according to the Financial Times analysis.

Stormont's early doomsday warnings of coronavirus deaths reaching "biblical proportions" may have lulled many at this stage of the pandemic into a false sense of security, breeding complacency on the basics of hand-washing, physical distancing and face masks.

Northern Ireland's first localised restrictions came later and were less stringent than those introduced in both Britain and the Republic.

But as such restrictions have multiplied – and become more complex, with varying levels of enforcement and compliance – it has become more difficult to assess how well they have worked in curbing the virus.

Dr Gabriel Scally, President of the Epidemiology and Public Health section of the Royal Society of Medicine, said restrictions are only part of the solution, and stressed the need for an effective testing and tracing system.

"All of the attention is going on restrictive measures, and there is no attention being put on doing the public health work to find the virus, get in front of the virus and suppress the virus," he said.

Stormont has faced accusations of mixed messages and confusion over its Covid strategy, particularly with the onset of localised restrictions.

The executive defended preventing household visits while keeping pubs and restaurants open, only to weeks later impose further restrictions on hospitality venues in the Derry and Strabane council area.

Dr Scally expressed concern over a lack of data coming from Stormont's health department.

He also called for "urgent scrutiny of the arrangements of handling the pandemic".

"I think the position in terms of the number of cases is extremely serious, and it compares extremely badly with other countries," he added.

"What is I think deeply saddening and shocking is that Northern Ireland was down to zero deaths and a handful of cases in July, and it has let that opportunity slip through our fingers."