Consequences of partitioned public health become clear

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The failure to agree a joint all-island strategy on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a blame game on both sides of the border as the numbers of new cases and deaths have once again spiralled upwards.

The level of coronavirus cases north of the border is now one of the highest in Europe, while in the 26 Counties disputes have raged over the return of grinding lockdown restrictions.

Both administrations stand accused of missing a major opportunity to eradicate the disease across Ireland over the summer.

One of the leading figures in the field, Gabriel Scally, a Professor of Epidemiology at Bristol University said Ireland was foolish not to use its island advantage, but insisted there was still hope.

“The best protection against the virus is a stretch of water,” he said. “We have, within our grasp, a chance to suppress the virus across the whole of our island.

“Doing so will require political courage and statecraft of the highest level. We should be vocally demanding that our politicians, North and South, step up to the plate.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin held talks on Friday with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Stormont in an effort to “maximise the level of harmony and co-ordination” on both sides of the border.

He said he was “very, very concerned” about the level of cases in the North. His government has imposed strict ‘level 4’ measures on activities in the border counties of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan, parallel to a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown imposed on the other side of the border.

However, there are bizarre anomalies, with parishes which straddle the border allowed to hold church services in the north, but not the south.

While there is no clear explanation for the surge in the border counties, it has drawn fresh attention to the failure of politicians in both Dublin and Belfast to exploit Ireland’s geography to insulate the island from the disease.

The 1998 Good Friday peace Agreement included a facility for the creation of cross-border bodies, but few materialised and none was set up for the purpose of safeguarding public health. A ‘memorandum of cooperation’ between the two administrations agreed in April appeared to be little more than lip service.

On Wednesday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar claimed genuine efforts had been made, but blamed the Stormont Executive for refusing an all-island approach by refusing to place restrictions on travel between the North and Britain.

He claimed public health officials agreed that an all-island approach is “not workable” because of the border through Ireland and “because they [the Six Counties] have free travel with the UK”.

But Dr Scally denied this, and highlighted the backing given to an all-Ireland policy by Stormont’s cross-party health committee.

“The key question for Leo Varadkar is - have you discussed this with your northern counterparts? He is very clearly saying that the thing that makes it impossible is the Northern Ireland approach. That’s wrong, it has to be a joint north/south effort and it will succeed,” he said.

“But it will only succeed if both parts of the island join together. I think it is unacceptable to put the blame on Northern Ireland. The politicians, north and south, need to sit down together and produce a unified response to the virus.”

Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane says more co-operation is needed on sharing the burden.

“The health ministers north and south need to talk but what we actually need is action,” he said.

“We need to see much stronger collaboration on testing and tracing and we need to see a much better alignment on responses and restrictions”

Mr Cullinane said the island needs to act as one. “We need to show solidarity, if we don’t have a one island response we’re not going to be able to wrestle back this virus and take and control of it in the time ahead.”

Speaking after her meeting with Micheál Martin on Friday evening, Michelle O’Neill added: “This virus doesn’t recognise borders and there must be determined efforts to maximise North South co-operation and common action in the time ahead.”

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