A new and more dangerous strain of coronavirus which has emerged in the southeast of England has resulted in a flight ban from Britain to the 26 Counties, but the Stormont Executive in the North has so far refused to take part.
Amid exponential increases in infections and deaths due to the new strain in the London area, the British Health Secretary admitted on Sunday that Covid-19 is now “out of control” there. Countries across Europe have introduced flight bans and Scotland has moved to close its border, but calls for urgent and decisive action from Stormont have gone unheeded.
Unionists continue to refuse restrictions across the Irish Sea for ideological reasons, and under the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement and the 2020 ‘New Decade, New Approach’ talks deal, the DUP holds a veto on any major decision at Stormont.
Epidemiologists fear the new strain of coronavirus causes much more powerful and dangerous infections than those previously in circulation. The Dublin government is one of scores which immediately put in place measures to block travel by air or sea from England. Fortunately, there is no indication the new virus strain has yet made it across the Irish Sea.
Stormont executive ministers have been considering amending public health legislation to introduce short-term travel restrictions in the North, but unionists have insisted that the restrictions already in place against travel through England are sufficient.
As talking continued in Belfast and the North’s Attorney General was reportedly considering the situation, more than a thousand air passengers arrived into Belfast and Derry from London.
Some unionists insist the border through Ireland should be closed first in order to ‘balance’ any new limitation on air travel between Britain and Ireland. Ulster Unionist peer John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) encouraged those travelling to the 26 Counties to reroute through Belfast, potentially forcing the Dublin government to attempt to close off border roads.
Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan accused the Executive of “dithering and delay”. He urged ministers to act quickly on travel, adding: “It is not a sustainable position going forward.”
He gave the example of a flight which had left Belfast on Sunday with 30 passengers and was due to bring 80 back from Heathrow, but instead came back full.
“People who couldn’t get flying to Dublin had rebooked their flights, and every flight this week into the North here is going to be bunged in the same way,” Mr Sheehan said.
His party colleague, John O’Dowd, said: “Sometimes there are times to act and seek forgiveness later. Surely it is time to act.”
Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann was nonplussed, however, and he encouraged to be sensible in the face of the new threat. “You should not leave your home if you’re in tier 4 [in England], so you should not be travelling to Northern Ireland, you shouldn’t be travelling anywhere”,” he said.
He blamed the Dublin government for acting too quickly, and said it was “unfortunate the Irish government took the intervention they did without any interaction or heads up to ourselves that that’s what they were going to do”.
Sinn Féin’s Colm Gildernew said the Health Minister needed to “stop prevaricating” and bring forward “credible proposals”.
“The threat posed by the rapid rate of infection of the new strain of COVID-19 is extremely concerning,” he said.
“With the spike of infection rates in the south of England at present, almost 40 countries around the world have introduced restrictions on travelling to and from Britain.
“Our health service is already under intense pressure and if the Health Minister does not bring forward credible proposals on travel restrictions there is a serious risk that it could be overwhelmed by this new strain. We simply cannot allow that to happen; we need action now.”
Aontú’s Emmet Doyle called for the immediate suspension of all flights and transports between Britain and the North of Ireland, matching the 48 hour suspensions seen across Europe and the rest of Ireland.
“The North cannot be an outlier,” he said.
He added: “Throughout this pandemic, we have failed to utilise the natural advantages of an island combatting a virus.
“The approach of the Executive has been a confused disaster. As a new strain has developed, let us hope our governments have learned from the mistakes of the past.”