Northern Ireland news

Knee jerk circuit breakers have 'very limited effect', leading virologist warns

Dr Gerald Barry, assistant professor of virology at University College Dublin, has warned of the impact of short circuit breakers
Seanín Graham

NORTHERN Ireland's higher rates of Covid compared with the Republic show that "knee jerk" circuit breakers have "very limited effect", a leading virologist has warned.

Dr Gerald Barry, assistant professor of virology at University College Dublin (UCD), said while case numbers had started to creep up in the south, the stringent six-week lockdown imposed in mid-October led to a dramatic reduction in people testing positive.

Level 5 measures were lifted at the beginning of this month, with travel restrictions between southern counties due to be eased on Friday.

During the first wave, the Republic health's service was severely hit by the pandemic as hospitals struggled to cope with ICU admissions.

However, Dr Barry said their system is not currently overwhelmed compared to the north, where health chiefs made a joint plea earlier this week amid unprecedented pressures.

"Our hospital admissions low and continuously coming down. The ICUs are very stable with around 30/31 cases. Last night we had 230 people in hospital with Covid compared with more than 400 in the north," Dr Barry said.

"The frustrating thing in Northern Ireland, this idea of a two-week circuit breaker is what I would call a knee-jerk reaction. Things get out of control and government decide on this action but when you look at it, it has very limited effect.

"You have to do this for an extended period and you have to plan. Christmas is important but you have to plan in October to ensure the numbers are down. You don't come to the beginning of December and panic with a circuit breaker. All you're doing is annoying people."

With GPs reporting an increase in patient referrals in the south this week and a spike in infection rates in Donegal, there is mounting concern about cross-border transmission after Derry/Strabane experienced record cases in October.

Dr Barry said while the actions of individuals are key in preventing spread of the virus, public confidence in political leaders was also essential.

"Personal responsibility is massive and ultimately it's everyone's behaviour that contributes to this. But at the same time, it has to be driven from the top and the public are relying on strong guidance and leadership. If there's doubt at all in that leadership, people start to question things and don't commit to a restriction as strongly as they would have back in April - when effectively fear drove everyone into a really harsh lockdown," he added.

"That was imposed but people took it upon themselves to obey it. The issue is now there's an element of mixed messaging. There's also an element of people thinking that it's not as bad as they thought it was going to be - which is a mistake.

""The concern here is that we're going to see a big increase in cases over the next 10 days. But in fairness to NPHET (National Public Health Emergency Team) we did act and do tend to act a lot more conservatively than other European countries, including the UK."

Dr Barry also spoke of the inevitability of "fatigue" with current restrictions.

"When we went into a harsh six-week lockdown, the numbers plummeted during the first three weeks but then it stagnated and that's down to people not paying as much attention to the restrictions.

"That leads to the bigger worry that if you go into this cycle of rolling lockdown, every time you go back into a restrictions it becomes less effective because the messaging gets tired."

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