Zero Covid in Ireland: a sceptic’s view

  • Published on previous account Jan 22 2021, I just botched the merging of accounts.

This is a quick note to help me get my own thoughts straight on why I have been sceptical of recent calls for Zero Covid. It is somewhat rushed and is certainly not comprehensive, but might align with what some others are thinking. It is not that I am against the outcome, but concerned that key questions need answering.

Introduction

Zero Covid has picked up momentum in recent weeks in Ireland, with Opposition support consolidating around the policy. Its proponents make a compelling case for a route out of the current misery and tedium of repeating lockdowns. However, many of us are deeply sceptical. Not because we are all enthralled to Government and its current approach, but because so often Zero Covid proponents gloss over what feel like critical questions.

This leads me to question how genuine a policy goal Zero Covid is. It feels as if it should be beholden on Opposition to deal honestly and creatively with the barriers to Zero Covid. Turning an attractive policy outcome into a workable policy is precisely what might convince people that the likes of the Social Democrats are ready for government.

For instance, People Before Profit’s Covid policy released in January 2021 highlights the problems which exist North and South as regards the response to Covid, some of which is cogent and convincing. However, it does not tell us how to convince the DUP or how to guard the Border if necessary.

Furthermore, Róisín Shortall TD (Social Democrats) wrote about a potential Zero Covid approach in the Irish Times (January 4th, 2021). She glosses over the gaping problem of how to co-ordinate with the North in a single paragraph. Potential restrictions on the Border are dealt with in a single 13-word sentence. What makes her proposal much less compelling is that how to co-ordinate with the North or how to place restrictions on the Border is the key difficulty with Zero Covid. It is disingenuous to simply gloss over it as a mere detail.

There are three ways which Zero Covid could operate on the island of Ireland: a) the Republic with the North but not mainland GB, b) the Republic without the North, or c) the island of Ireland and the rest of the UK. I consider the first two and potential pitfalls. This is not a comprehensive analysis, but nonetheless I believe it raises relevant questions which need to be answered before some of us can get on board with Zero Covid.

I have left out Option C for two reasons. The Covid rate in England has consistently been very high, so I am not sure what benefits it would bring and there is prospect of the political will materialising any time soon.

Finally, it should be noted that this note does not attempt to balance the potential negative impacts of Zero Covid against the costs. As a thought experiment it merely assumes that Zero Covid would be a good thing and asks whether it is feasible.

A) With the North

Of the two options, this one seems the least likely to succeed, unless there is a significant political groundswell of support which move the DUP to change their policy. There are two barriers in my mind regarding the DUP, firstly their general reluctance to countenance strict quarantine measures, which Zero Covid would require, and secondly, the political ramifications of an all-island approach for the DUP.

DUP’s general reluctance to consider restrictions

Regarding the DUP’s reluctance to countenance strict lockdown measures, it is important to remember that throughout the pandemic, the DUP have had to be cajoled into introducing stricter measures. Ostensibly, this is because they have been concerned with the impact of restrictions on business. A good example of this was pre-Christmas with the North suffering from a particularly acute spike in cases, the DUP was particularly against additional measures and has used cross-community votes on a number of occasions to block measures.

Even if the DUP could be convinced to work with Dublin, the kinds of measures required, hard lockdown at first with strict quarantine in hotels for travellers seems unlikely to be accepted.

Political ramifications for the DUP of an all-island approach

More importantly, the political implications for the DUP of an all-island approach would be very damaging. In the context of recent Brexit changes, the logistical and bureaucratic requirements of bringing goods in and out of NI onto mainland GB are pushing NI towards a united Ireland economically. Even the likes of George Osbourne have indicated that the logistical issues will push Belfast towards Dublin and away from London.

The DUP have railed against this unsurprisingly (despite of course playing an important role in getting us to this position). They fear that the subtle separating of NI from mainland GB will erode their position in the Union, during a time of demographic change.

How could they possibly advocate for an all-island approach to Covid? In effect, having created separation with the rest of the Union for goods, they would now be placing significant barriers on the movement of people back and forth. All visitors from the rest of the UK would have to quarantine for at least two weeks in hotels and be subject to testing requirements. Indeed, NI residents would be less likely to go to Britain too, knowing they would have to quarantine for two weeks on the way back.

Moreover, Zero Covid is not a temporary measure. To be worthwhile (think of all the logistical infrastructure required to contract with hotels and guard them to ensure people remain inside), it would need to be imposed for months on end, perhaps for the rest of 2021.

Zero Covid proponents are quick to say that this is all well and good but that the Irish Government has failed to properly co-ordinate with NI throughout the crisis. In particular, they point to the refusal of the Irish Government to share traveller details, as highlighted in recent weeks.

We can agree that this is a failing and requires a clear explanation, but it does nothing to dislodge the serious underlying political danger to the DUP of embracing an all-island Zero Covid zone which would restrict the access of other citizens of the UK accessing NI. It would be a serious strategic error from their point of view, further separating NI from GB and demonstrating, once again, the benefits of an all-island approach to a serious public policy matter.

There is no compelling case made by any Zero Covid proponents about how we convince the DUP.

That brings us to a Zero Covid policy without the North.

B) Without the North

For this approach we would need to erect a watertight border with Northern Ireland. Brexit provides us with some important guidance on this point. We all know now that there are over 300 border crossings between both jurisdictions.

People live on one side of the border and work on the other. Or perhaps they shop on both sides. Or their relatives might live on one side and they live on the other.

It is one of the most porous borders in the world, and we have spent the best part of half of a decade arguing in London and Brussels that we couldn’t possibly police it as it would be logistically impossible and would disrupt the lives of too many people.

Firstly, let’s imagine what this would require for it to be successful. To actually achieve Zero Covid we would need to ensure no one crossed the border without quarantining. Otherwise, if the rest of the island was freely moving about, which is the promise of Zero Covid, there is a serious risk that they would re-introduce Covid. Given the extent of cross-border travel, this would not be feasible.

How could you stop nurses living on different sides of the Border going to work in Letterkenny UH on one side or Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry? This one example of the thousands of people who have to cross the border for work or another important dimension of their lives on a daily basis.

Testing is not feasible either. People move across too frequently to require them to get tests. Even if they didn’t move across so frequently, tests are often wrong and so quarantine would be the only successful route. Afterall, otherwise Singapore and Australia would just test people and release them.

Zero Covid needs certainty that you have isolated the virus in those travelling inwards.

But didn’t we impose border restrictions on counties in the South?

The requisite certainty of elimination is the reason why it would not be the same as the inter-county borders which we imposed in the likes of Kildare.

The aim was not the same: we were not attempting to rid Kildare of Covid or prevent any transmission out of Kildare. People were allowed to leave for variety of reasons, such as work, medical appointments, or farming purposes. There was a recognition that this would still drastically reduce the number of cases but would not create the water-tight borders that one would need to achieve Zero Covid.

We could not have enforced county border restrictions at the level required for Zero Covid, because it would have impacted on the lives of citizens, with workplaces and loved ones in different counties, which couldn’t be countenanced.

What is unique about NI is that it is de facto, even if not de jure, a part of the Republic for the purposes of many people’s lives. This makes it unique and consequently, comparisons with other countries locking down borders, such as Vietnam, are simply not fair comparisons.

Conclusion

I believe Zero Covid is so popular because it provides a vista of a Covid free world and a chance to return to normality.

Opposition should encourage creative thinking, but if it is to be treated as more than simply heckling Government and instead as a substantive policy proposal, then it needs to have the necessary detail on the hard questions which have thus far left Zero Covid out of reach.

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Eoin Maclachlan

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