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Contact tracing key to preventing cycle of Covid-19 lockdowns

AS we face into four weeks of stringent coronavirus restrictions, there is also the gloomy prospect that further similar 'mini lockdowns' may be imposed during the winter.

According to DUP agriculture minister Edwin Poots, making an extraordinary intervention yesterday, the Stormont executive has been told that two more 'circuit breaker' periods could be needed.

The escalating Covid-19 crisis clearly demands a sharp response to help stop the health service from becoming overwhelmed.

But a cycle of shutdowns, with bruising economic, educational, social, health and other consequences, is clearly unsustainable.

If this nightmare scenario of repeated circuit breaks is to be avoided and the virus suppressed as much as possible, it seems clear that our Covid-19 response must be beefed up in two key areas.

First, an all-Ireland approach should be adopted. The plight of Derry and Donegal, border communities each experiencing appallingly high infection rates, would alone demonstrate the urgent need for a fully coordinated approach.

As well as the heightened restrictions introduced in Northern Ireland and the 'level four' restrictions imposed on Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, the Republic's National Public Health Emergency Team has now advised that 'level five' measures be put in place nationally for six weeks.

This, among other things, means people should not travel more than 5km from their homes though - in a significant and welcome difference to the north - schools would remain open.

It seems perverse that similar restrictions on movement designed to limit the spread of the virus would not be enacted on both sides of the border.

Second, it is essential that the system tracing contacts of those who have tested positive operates far more effectively.

This has been overwhelmed by the rapid and sustained rise in cases, with the Public Health Agency telling Stormont's health committee that it was staffed to deal with an anticipated October peak of 300 cases per day.

Unfortunately daily positive tests are running at multiples of that. The PHA is recruiting more staff, but in the meantime it can be assumed that many contacts of Covid-positive people are going untraced, leading to further uncontrolled spread of the virus.

If this four-week period of more intense restrictions is to prove valuable, it must be used to ramp up the test and trace regime.

That would also allow responses to outbreaks of the virus to be geographically targeted in the future, thus reducing the need for a blanket approach to restrictions.

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