Northern Ireland's Covid-19 infection and hospital admission rates are so high that two busy hospitals temporarily closed to emergency arrivals this week. The Stormont Executive belatedly agreed a mandatory Covid passport for admission to bars, restaurants, nightclubs and concerts but health department modelling says more severe restrictions may be needed from mid-December.
The largest Stormont party, the DUP, voted against the passport move, seeing it as an infringement of freedom. But the party did not use its power of veto to block it, as it did Irish language legislation, widespread abortion provision and same-sex marriage. One commentator suggested the manoeuvre was meant to please anti-passport believers while avoiding blame for a winter Covid surge. A more restrained view was that the DUP knew its veto on stronger restrictions last winter had been widely unpopular.
Power-sharer partner Sinn Féin has been less vocally conflicted but only supported the move after some fence-sitting. The SDLP and the Alliance Party began calling for a passport some time ago, and were mocked for it. Misogynist trolls regularly target Alliance leader Naomi Long but offensive tweeting is also focusing on health minister Ulster Unionist Robin Swann, the smaller unionist party's sole minister.
Swann left himself open to some criticism last month by saying that his department did not have a draft passport ready. Although – or perhaps because – he is consistently deemed by polls the most respected Stormont figure, rancour on the airwaves and in social media seemed mostly to come from other unionists. The loudest have been a DUP MLA who, like Swann, represents North Antrim, and MP Sammy Wilson, who represents nearby East Antrim. Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson has tried to stand back from the fray on the pretext that First Minister Paul Givan needed more scientific evidence from Swann. Donaldson and Givan have been in post for a bare four months, after the DUP's spate of leadership changes. Religious fundamentalist, libertarian and anti-vaccination conspiracies have appeal for some DUP voters. Next year's Assembly election campaign is well under way.
With the seven-day infection rate standing at 587.3 per 100,000, Northern Ireland's infection rate is higher than that of the Republic. Hospitality spokespeople complain rather unconvincingly of being scapegoated by the move to demand passports, insisting responsible management of venues is superior to compulsion. But others welcome the move. Northern Ireland has been out of step with the European mainstream in its failure to link vaccination to hospitality and other activities. The argument for going it alone in that way would have been stronger were the North's infection rates not spiralling out of control.