Covid-19 – North and South


Sir, – It seems to have escaped Dr Graham Gudgin’s attention (Letters, April 24th) that there is an urgent international discussion in progress regarding the effectiveness of different public health policies for fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

This particularly concerns the application of World Health Organisation advice to test, trace and isolate. The Republic chose to follow the WHO advice while the North stopped testing and tracing in the community from March 12th. It would be remarkable if the outcome in death rates was “much the same”.

Yet this is his judgment on the basis of the selective use of statistics. He concludes that the more important comparison is with England and the “key factors” are “the relative isolation of an off-shore island” and lower population density – not public health measures.

Two points on the statistics. First, why add in 113 “suspected but unconfirmed deaths” to the Republic’s running daily total but not estimate all Covid-19 linked deaths for the North? The Financial Times estimated the latter to be 500 by April 21st, a crude death rate of 266 per million compared to Dr Gudgin’s 182 per million for the Republic.

Second, why gloss over the hospital-based death statistics?

This is the standard for international daily reporting for the pandemic and it is the best we have for North/South comparisons at the moment.

To quote England’s Chief medical Officer, Prof Chris Whitty, hospital-based Covid-19 mortality is “accurate but narrow”.

Given the debate that has been stirred up, the way forward would be for the chief medical officers, who have signed a joint memorandum of understanding, to agree a series of Covid-19 death statistics, updated daily and with whatever caveats, that are good enough for comparative analysis in the current emergency.

Transparency is essential for informed public discussion as well as for maintaining confidence in the exceptional public health measures being applied now and in the future. – Yours, etc,


Emeritus Professor

of Social Policy,

Queen’s University Belfast.

Sir, – The array of statistics about the incidence of Covid-19 has become bewildering. It reached a new level of confusion last week with clashing figures from two academics, Belfast-based Mike Tomlinson (“Coronavirus. Ireland is one island with very different death rates”, Opinion & Analysis, April 22nd) and Cambridge-based Graham Gudgin (Letters, April 24th) on the comparative number of deaths from the virus in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

So I decided to do my own calculation. The figures on Monday’s front page of The Irish Times put the latest deaths at 1,087 (including probable or suspected deaths) in the Republic of Ireland and 299 in Northern Ireland. Adding 30 per cent to the Northern statistics to cover non-hospital deaths there, as suggested by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, brings the latter figure to 389.

Bearing in mind that inter-jurisdictional comparisons are always fraught with difficulty, and using the official population figures for the two Irish jurisdictions, this equates to one death per 4,527 people in the South and one death per 4,837 people in the North. So the death rate from the virus in the North appears to be a little lower than in the South, but not by very much. The real difference is with the UK as a whole, which has seen one death per 3,215 people.

Why the difference? Nobody has yet come up with a satisfactory answer.

Despite what has been said, it is apparently not down to earlier and more systematic testing and tracing in the Republic.

Maybe it is simply the fact that we live on a less densely-populated island (albeit a divided one). – Yours, etc,



Dublin 6.

Sir, – Dr Michael McBride, the North’s Chief Medical Officer, announced last Thursday that a pilot contact tracing scheme in Northern Ireland would begin this week with a four-week training programme “so that we are ready to turn that service on when that’s required”. This clearly suggests that the Northern Ireland Executive does not deem it necessary at present.

Surely when any patient tests positive then anybody that was in close contact with that infected person should be alerted. This can only be done by contact tracing.

This attempt to delay until “when that’s required” is another way of saying that we need to wait until London decides – a political snub to “interference” from Dublin.

So much for the all-Ireland memorandum of understanding. – Yours, etc,



Co Fermanagh.