Faced with the health crisis
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Northern Ireland’s healthcare crisis – exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic – is the erratic and sometimes slow nature of the political response. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood’s call for vaccine passports did not gain immediate all-party support. It may have taken the worst Covid infection rates in Europe to align the supposedly power-shared DUP and Sinn Féin on lifting restrictions. DUP Premier Paul Givan agreed with Sinn Féin Deputy Premier Michelle O’Neill at last week’s executive meeting on no immediate changes, but said other meetings would discuss the relaxations soon.
Yet infection figures have at times been double those south of the border. The vaccination rate is the lowest in the UK. Operating rooms are not being used as intensive care nurses are tasked with one-on-one care of Covid patients. An exhausted health service, with the largest backlogs in the UK for elective surgeries even before Covid, has called for reinforcement of the medical staff of the recently retired and newly qualified as well as the British military. Public health specialist Dr Gabriel Scally and Northern GP representative Dr Tom Black highlighted mutual risks associated with lack of coordination between all the islands. Sinn Féin and SDLP would have liked to stay in tune with cross-border regulations and called for cooperation. The valiant Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann noted Dublin’s constant lack of mutual enthusiasm.
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The DUP, keen to follow English practice despite the hesitations of the Johnson government, have oscillated between blockages throughout their scorching year of leadership. The elaborate June 2020 rallies for the funeral of former IRA chief Bobby Storey still overshadow O’Neill’s Covid statements. But she made a strong impression when she returned to work after contracting the virus, urging people to get vaccinated and expressing concern that the health service might “tip over.”
When she emerged from a visit with Givan to Belfast’s main hospital, the Royal Victoria, they both looked shaken when they saw what O’Neill called staff near exhaustion. Givan promised a “measured approach” on the restrictions. Meanwhile, former party leader Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, who appointed Givan, urged the annual farmers’ rally at the Balmoral Show to ignore vaccine plots to protect themselves and their families .
The rate of new infections in the north, which may be starting to decline slightly, has overtaken all of Europe except Greece in recent weeks. Its Covid death rate was three times that of the Republic. Serious and coordinated messages from the major parties last week were urgently needed. They will have to make it sustainable and back it up with actions – including, if necessary, the maintenance of more restrictions – if the crisis is to be brought under control.