Now that community transmission of Covid-19 has in effect been suppressed in the Republic – an important milestone that suggests recent sacrifices are paying off – work can begin on plans to partially lift some social restrictions in early May. But there are three outstanding problems that could undermine any attempt to restore a semblance of normal life. All three must be addressed if we are to move into the next phase of the containment effort.
The first concerns nursing homes. In effect, there are two concurrent epidemics in the State. One, in society at large, is in retreat. The other, in institutions where we care for some of our most vulnerable citizens, is surging. Half of all deaths from Covid-19 have occurred in these homes and outbreaks have been reported in a third of the total – alarming facts that point to a real emergency. Containing that crisis must now be the priority of Government and public health authorities.
The second shortcoming is testing capacity. The State’s ambition to carry out mass testing has been undermined by shortages for over a month. There have been some signs of improvement, but unless the authorities can reach their target of 15,000 tests per day by the end of the month, with results available within 24 hours, a resurgence in infection levels would seem inevitable.
The third problem is one the State can do relatively little about, at least on its own. When restrictions are partially eased, Northern Ireland will be the island's weak link. This is because, contrary to guidance from the WHO, the North, taking its lead from London, is not engaged in community testing and tracing. That means the authorities have a wholly inadequate picture of the prevalence and behaviour of Covid-19 in the community – and will have a limited ability to detect new infection waves quickly (it does not help that the chief epidemiological model informing London policy does not include Northern Ireland). Given the extent of cross-border activity, that's a problem for both jurisdictions, and it is a problem exacerbated by sharp divisions on these issues within the Northern Executive.
Our island status gives us a natural advantage in fighting an epidemic; another island, New Zealand, is on track to eliminate coronavirus entirely. Markedly different approaches north and south currently make that an unattainable ambition here. But if ever there was a time to put aside tribal differences, this is it. The only way the virus can be suppressed long-term is through a single common approach across the island. The north-south memorandum of understanding signed earlier this month was a good start. But it must have practical results, meaning at minimum an island-wide policy on testing, tracing, the use of face masks, the duration of isolation, travel restrictions and checks at ports and airports. Covid-19 sees no borders. Neither should our response to it.