Northern Ireland news

Virologist says 'everything would shut' in Republic if it had north's Covid rates

With the Republic's coronavirus rates consistently lower than the north's during the second wave of the pandemic, an expert has questioned the different approaches to lockdown either side of the border

Cafes and restaurants across Northern Ireland are preparing to reopen on Friday following the end of circuit-breaker restrictions. Picture by Hugh Russell
Seanín Graham

A leading virologist has expressed astonishment at Northern Ireland reopening its economy, saying that if the Republic had similar levels of Covid, "they would shut the whole place down".

Dr Gerald Barry, an assistant professor of virology at University College Dublin (UCD), said based on population size, the number of new cases each day in the north - currently between 500 and 600 - would equate to around 1,500 in the Republic.

Comparing the approaches of the two governments, he said the Republic had been more “conservative” and acted earlier during wave one and wave two, having "generally" followed the advice of its Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan and National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

But while he accepted there was dialogue between senior health officials on either side of the border, he expressed surprise at the different responses on one island.

"There seems to me a willingness to co-ordinate things to an extent but they’re clearly not on the same page," he said.

In an interview with The Irish News, Dr Barry warned of the inevitability of a northern lockdown in January, saying the easing of restrictions is “very short sighted”.

Read More: Executive scheduled to meet as health minister warns of further restrictions ahead of Christmas

The Republic has imposed some of the strictest measures in Europe as part of its six-week 'level 5' lockdown, which will end in a fortnight.

"If we were at 1,500 cases a day in the south, we would shut the whole place down completely. Schools would close, everything would shut without a doubt,” Dr Barry said.

"We hit 1,000 cases a few weeks ago and there was huge panic, that's when we entered level 5. If the authorities hadn't seen a reaction it would have gone even further.

"The idea of being at 1,500 cases a day and considering that good is completely foreign to what we experience down here. We're at 400 cases a day at the moment and it's not considered good.

“So when I hear that what is being proposed in Northern Ireland and opening up now, it’s only going to go one way.

"It just seems very short-sighted in that you’re trying to open up to save the economy when actually all you’re doing is guaranteeing you’ll be in another lockdown.

"That is going to have an even worse effect on businesses that are struggling already, on people’s morale, on people’s confidence in leadership. All these things are going to be impacted."

Earlier this week's the north's Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Ian Young, indicated further "interventions" will be required before Christmas to curb the spread of infection and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

The 'R' rate is now at around one and some hospitals are already operating beyond capacity.

A compromise on a one-week extension of the north's current 'circuit breaker' was reached at Stormont after bitter wrangling between parties last week. It followed advice from the north's CMO that any relaxation of measures could lead to excess deaths.

Cafes and hairdressers will be among businesses to re-open tomorrow as part of a phased return of hospitality and other sectors.

Dr Barry said while he understood the challenges facing politicians, the importance of showing unity in leadership could not be underestimated in a public health crisis.

"There has been a concerted effort at government level here to show unity on policy. That’s really important from a science point of view. Communication to the public needs to be very clear and backed up by data, not just opinion," he said.

"Something as fundamental as mask wearing for example, it’s just a no-brainer. It’s not a political question, it’s a health and virus transmission question. We know that masks are good and they help. They limit transmission and protect people to an extent. Even if the virus does get through to someone, they reduce the amount of virus getting through to that person so the impact is reduced as well.

"If, at government level, the leaders are not showing unity on something like that, that’s obviously going to feed down into the general public because any sign of doubt from leadership will be amplified in the general public.

"There is criticism of the some of the advice in the Republic but they're also doing multiple surveys which show the average person trusts the data, trusts the science, trusts NPHET. There are grumblings and business people don’t like it, but in general government follows what NPHET says. Generally, they’ve been proved right so far."

The Dublin-based virologist also expressed concern at Covid transmission across the border and said a more "synchronised" all-island policy would benefit the population.

"It does make you think, that we're literally the other side of the border and have such different opinions. One of the concerns we have is around the border counties being affected by traffic from the north - because if the rate in the county next door is so much higher, the inevitability is that there's going to be spillover," he said.

"It's very challenging to deal with that. We want to keep borders open, we want to keep movement free. So that's why we hope for some sort of synchronisation of policies - though I don't think that's coming any time soon."

With positive news around vaccine breakthoughs over the past week, Dr Barry said that will be at least mid-2021 before they are rolled out properly.

In the meantime, mass testing which picks up asymptomatic case could help "break the chains of transmission".

He pointed to Slovakia, where 5 million people were tested in four days. It is also being trialled Liverpool.

"The idea with mass testing is that you use cheap tests that don’t require laboratory access or facilities. So they’re can be done on a mass scale at a relatively low price," he said.

"The disadvantage is they’re not as accurate as the test we currently use, which is the gold standard... But what’s really important is that they don’t give false positives.

"The key thing if you’re testing on a mass scale, the huge advantage is that you will pick up positive cases you wouldn’t have picked up otherwise.

"Slovakia is the best example where came up with around 57,000 positives. They’ve openly admitted they wouldn’t have picked up a fraction of those if they'd just carried on as normal."

But Dr Barry stressed mass testing was not a solution to Covid - instead offering an extra layer of screening to "weed out" postivie cases.

"Most of these tests are relatively straightforward, it can be a saliva swab or nasal swab. So you could set up serial testing in hotspots of infection. If you identified a town for example that had a large outbreak, you could go in and mass test on a weekly basis for a concerted time and hopefully get on top of it much more rapidly and in a more cost effective way."

He added: "If you look at our six-week lockdown we’re going through, it’s going to cost the economy £1.5 billion. If you put that in context and look at testing the whole population for a fraction of that, that could become an economic possibility."

Ultimately however, the virologist said the direction of travel for the virus over coming months would be determined by how individuals act in containing its spread.

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