The partition of Ireland is once again endangering lives as divergent strategies on the coronavirus make it easier for the disease, and disease carriers, to bypass restrictions on either side.
Efforts to keep Covid-19 from reigniting have provoked sharp exchanges in both Belfast and Dublin.
Epidemiologist Gabriel Scally, who is a member of the independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the separate approaches North and South would make life increasingly difficult for health officials in the coming months.
Prof Gabriel Scally said that Ireland should ‘crush’ the disease by imposing stricter quarantine procedures across the island.
This week the Dublin government produced a short list of countries from which incoming air and sea passengers would require isolation for a period of two weeks. This ‘green list’ of 15 ‘destinations’ is very different to that in use in the North, which permits travel from higher risk countries, such as Spain, Poland and Turkey.
Professor Scally said it is “such an error to leave the door open” to incoming foreign travel.
The president of the public health section at London’s Royal Society of Medicine said Ireland should be seeking to apply very strict quarantine measures to incoming visitors from foreign shores in the same manner as nations such as Taiwan and New Zealand, which have crushed the virus within their borders.
He said that the key to achieving that goal would be “strong cooperation” between the administrations in Belfast and Dublin in order for the issue of the border to be handled efficiently.
So far, there has been little sign of north-south co-operation to prevent the border being used to bypass restrictions. In recent weeks, two different apps have been rolled out for contact tracing in both jurisdictions.
“We are reaching crisis point across the world — it is such an error to leave the door open,” said Prof Scally.
“We need to remember that the virus came to Ireland via international tourist travel, and it could come back in really substantial numbers from across the world.”
Prof Scally argued that “Ireland could be zero Covid and life could go back to normal,” if heightened quarantine was observed on an island-wide basis.
“We are at a seminal moment, a fork in the road,” he said. “One way leads to a zero-Covid Ireland, the other time we have a very bumpy time over the next number of months, and who knows what the winter will bring?”
Sinn Féin’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill said she intended to discuss the matter with fellow Stormont ministers and the island of Ireland needed to act as one unit.
DUP leader Ms Foster called for ‘respect’ for the Common Travel Area, the passport-free area spanning Britain and Ireland.
“The Republic of Ireland has decided to go on a different route and they don’t respect the common travel area, that’s a matter for them,” she said.
The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson refused to align the lists across the island, insisting the DUP would not support any proposal to make travellers from England quarantine, instead suggesting the border should be sealed to “visitors” from the south of Ireland. He then accused Sinn Fein of “playing politics” with the issue.
A Sinn Féin spokesman said “travel restrictions on to the island need to be consistent so that one part of the island is not used as a back door to the other”.
“Travel on to the island from countries where Covid-19 rates are higher than here needs to be restricted on a consistent basis, North and South,” he said.
“As an island we are a single epidemiological entity, as recognised in the Executive’s plan in response to Covid-19. We need to realise this advantage of living on an island.”