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Newton Emerson: The North is not the reason there cannot be all-Ireland zero-Covid

The Government would not be pursuing zero-Covid strategy even in a united Ireland

The official answer to Covid-19 is the same as it has always been: lockdown and release until a vaccine is available. Photograph: Yasin Akgul/Getty Images

Like global warming, the zero-Covid proposal for the island of Ireland is something few of us are qualified to judge. The best we can do is compare the number of experts on each side of the debate. This proves nothing, of course: science is not a democracy. But it clearly matters that zero-Covid is advocated by only a handful of scientists and opposed by the vast majority of their colleagues, just as 97 per cent of climate scientists agree man-made change is occurring.

Most of us should be media-literate enough to realise a minority expert view might still get closer to 50 per cent of airtime, because that is how debate works. The clue is the same few faces appearing over and over again. As a newspaper columnist I can hardly complain about that but I am certainly qualified to spot it.

None of this means zero-Covid is wrong or its advocates should not be heard.

Serious analysis of what the policy would involve for Ireland has been produced.


However, it must be seen as an idea that has been consistently rejected, so far at least, by the scientific mainstream.

The example of New Zealand

While its supporters cite the example of New Zealand, the consensus is that this is a model few other countries can or should follow and one New Zealand will struggle to sustain.

In a final parallel with climate change, it is wise to watch for the terms of the debate being unilaterally redefined.

Some former climate sceptics concede man-made change is occurring, but argue we can live with it. Some zero-Covid advocates now say they do not literally mean zero – just as close as possible with rigorous quarantine, testing and tracing.

The official answer to Covid-19 is the same as it has always been: lockdown and release until a vaccine is available. As a second wave brings the crushing reality of this home, interest in zero-Covid will inevitably rise and the political appetite to debunk it will perhaps just as inevitably fall.

Until now, Irish governments have been robust in rejecting zero-Covid. As far back as the start of April, then tánaiste Simon Coveney gave a sharp response to calls to control movement onto the island – zero-Covid's central policy – explaining it would be counterproductive and contrary to EU advice.

But something shifted at the start of this month when Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said zero-Covid was "not possible for Ireland due to the land Border with Northern Ireland, because they have free travel with the UK."

That comment came during Varadkar's infamous RTÉ interview with Claire Byrne, when he said the Government's scientific advice "hadn't been thought through".

Everyone is debating an 'all-island approach' without defining what they mean by it

He may not have thought through the implications of his zero-Covid claim. It was promptly internalised across the political spectrum, being a far more palatable answer than unavoidable on-off lockdowns.

Northern Ireland is not the reason there cannot be zero-Covid but there is clearly a risk of it becoming the excuse.

Some all-Ireland grandstanding

Sinn Féin seized on Varadkar’s comment for some all-Ireland grandstanding, which was only to be expected.

More revealing was the friendly sincerity, albeit naive, of People Before Profit’s alternative budget, launched two weeks ago, with its headline pitch for the Republic to fund zero-Covid across the island.

Over the past week, both Coveney and Taoiseach Micheál Martin have mentioned the political impossibility of sealing the Border while rejecting zero-Covid. They have not emphasised this is incidental rather than decisive. The Government would not be pursuing zero-Covid even in a united Ireland.

Instead of making that clear, everyone is debating an “all-island approach” without defining what they mean by it. Is it co-operation, co-ordination or harmonisation? Or is it just blowing smoke?

Varadkar caused bemusement last week when he said the Northern Executive would not agree to co-ordinate restrictions. Stormont has been actively excluded from Dublin’s Covid policymaking, much to its frustration. In May, a minister in Varadkar’s administration said the people of the Republic had to be informed of decisions first.

Most of the scientists supporting zero-Covid are not hung up on an all-island approach.

Lock down small areas

The plan produced by their Zero Covid Island Group, presented in August to the Oireachtas, was at pains to sidestep constitutional sensitivities. It proposed that both administrations on the island lock down small areas to create so-called green zones, then simply keep going until all the zones join up.

The island’s external quarantine would still have to be arranged, which is presumed to be unacceptable to unionists, not that they or the UK government have been formally asked. But with the Republic introducing county-level restrictions and now a 5km travel limit, and Stormont introducing council area and postcode restrictions, the Border itself is a moot point.

It might be an idea to get the zero-Covid advocates back on air to explain that – after explaining how relatively few of them there are.