Coronavirus: Growing divergence in UK and Ireland’s response

Outbreak is first real test of co-operation between two countries in post-Brexit environment

British prime minister Boris Johnson has said that the outbreak of coronavirus in the UK has not forced him to change his habits, claiming that he shook hands with Covid-19 patients during a hospital visit.

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Differences are emerging between the approaches taken by Ireland and by the UK to the threat posed by the coronavirus, divergences that could become significant in the event of a surge in cases in either country.

The background to these differences lies in the UK’s departure from the European Union in January, making the outbreak the first real test of co-operation between the two countries in a post-Brexit environment.

Simply the fact that this is the first big international event since Brexit makes it more likely the UK will use this opportunity to highlight its independence from the dictates of the EU and other pan-European bodies. Add to this Boris Johnson’s muscular style of leadership and you have the ingredients for even wider divergences in approach as the weeks go by.

Against this, Ministers on both sides of the Border have been in touch over Covid-19 and, we are told, public health officials from the Republic and Northern Ireland have been tic-tacking about it since January.

The differences in approach between the two countries span various aspects of the public response, from travel advice to school closures and self-isolation.

In the Republic, authorities reacted to a first case by closing the school attended by the affected student for two weeks. Yet in Britain, its department of education says that where educational settings are impacted by a confirmed case of the virus, “in most cases, closure of the childcare or education setting will be unnecessary”.

‘Local decision’

Any decision on closure “will be a local decision based on various factors such as establishment size and pupil mixing,” according to the department’s advice.

The two approaches are not necessarily contradictory; Irish public health officials have indicated they took their decision to close the Dublin school based on its layout and other local factors. Experts in both jurisdictions emphasise that, in the words of the British authorities, “contacts are not considered cases and if they are well, they are very unlikely to have spread the infection to others.”

Public health officials in Ireland have refused to identify the school where a case occurred, sparking considerable controversy. Yet in the UK, some schools where cases have been reported have gone out of their way to issue statements to the media.

Both countries have issued travel advice for some of the areas most affected by the virus. Both advise against all travel to Hubei province in China, and against all non-essential travel to the rest of China and Iran, for example.

The Department of Foreign Affairs here has also issued advice for South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and parts of Italy, but in the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has spread its net further, by providing specific advice for Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Myanmar, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia and Macao.


One of the biggest differences in approach between Ireland the UK relates to self-isolation. In the UK, people arriving from areas with ongoing community transmission of Covid-19 are being asked to isolate themselves for 14 days after arriving back. This means they have to stay at home and not go to work or school.

Channel 4 journalist Jon Snow was one of those captured by this requirement, after travelling to Iran to cover elections. Another journalist, BBC’s Nick Robinson, also spent a fortnight at home as a precautionary measure following a holiday in Vietnam and Cambodia.

In contrast, Ireland is not asking people who return from areas where there is community transmission of the disease to isolate themselves – unless they develop symptoms. This is because Ireland is following the guidelines laid down by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, to which the UK no longer belongs.

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