The Stormont administration faces a mounting crisis over what has been described as an “abject” determination by unionists to follow the Tory government’s disastrous lead on the coronavirus epidemic.
The epidemic is rapidly enveloping the island of Britain, particularly in London. A spiralling exponential growth has seen fatalities in Britain reaching the order of two hundred per day.
Among those who have now fallen ill with the virus are Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who once called for Britain to take the epidemic “on the chin”, despite warnings of tens of thousands of lives being lost.
Health Minister Matt Hancock, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, and ‘Prince’ Charles Windsor, have all contracted the disease.
But the speed of their diagnosis and testing, as well as those of other celebrities, has raised questions about the preferential access of an English elite to very limited health resources.
Thousands of members of the general public have been refused a test for months, despite suffering the classic symptoms. Some patients have even died without receiving a test.
Despite recent efforts to slow down the advance of the disease, politicians in the north of Ireland have come under pressure to take advantage of Ireland’s natural geography and chart a course of action in line with international best practice for containing and eradicating the virus.
New Zealand, which instituted entry controls in line with its island topography, have suffered no deaths from the disease. But Stormont, which has remained closely in line with the policy u-turns of the London government, is seeing an inexorably rising body count, now at 13.
Clearly distressed by the scale of the crisis, Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill broke into tears in the Assembly on Monday. She described concerns that the strain on health services meant essential life-saving treatment was being denied to cancer victims as “the challenges we are going to have to deal with”, before sobbing.
Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann, who as recently as least week insisted schools should remain open, has now backed a policy of social distancing as a means of dampening down the crisis.
“In a few short weeks, this onslaught could very rapidly dwarf the impact of the Troubles on our society,” he said. “But we are not powerless in this situation. We can push it back. We can fight back.”
However, he has continued to ignore calls to put distance between the north of Ireland and England, where the virus has found a new epicentre.
Commentator Brian Feeney said there have been mixed messages from Stormont and the “abject adherence” to what’s going on in Britain has been “extremely annoying”. He warned the disagreements were a sign of things to come, adding: “It’s not united, despite what they say.”
Another commentator, Joe Brolly, warned the North was being “left behind”. Republican Sinn Féin said the the lives of the people in the Six Counties were being “needlessly put at risk” by a “slavish” pursuit of the British government’s inadequate policies.
“What this health crisis has exposed is the truly dysfunctional nature of the Six-County statelet,” it said.
“While other European states reacted with decisive action in closing schools, pubs and restaurants, the British government [is] risking the lives of the old and those with underlying health problems.”
Aontú called for an integrated, all-Ireland response to the COVID-19. The party’s councillors in the border area said the disparity between the approaches of the southern government and the Northern Executive were “stark”.
“As has been stated endlessly throughout this pandemic, the COVID-19 virus knows no borders,” they said. “There should be no disparity in the approach taken anywhere in Ireland with regards to the virus.”
Éirígí called for Irish ports and airports to be closed island-wide as part of efforts to eliminate the disease.
“As an island, Ireland has a significant advantage over other countries when it comes to disease control. We must now use that advantage and close all ports and airports across the thirty-two counties. Only an all-island strategy can slow and ultimately defeat Covid-19.”
They said we “need to work together to buy time” for the health services on both parts of the island to make every possible preparation for the storm that is coming”.
A failure to seal the borders would “undermine all of our collective efforts to minimise the damage that the virus does to our families and communities. It needs to happen now.”