Northern Ireland may face tougher restrictions if there is a spike in the rate of infection from COVID19 as restrictions are eased ahead of the Christmas period, warned Stormont ministers.
Restrictions may be implemented again “around Christmas”. This warning came ahead of the easing of lockdown restrictions on 11th December, to give respite for businesses under strain.
What were the last restrictions like and why could there be tougher restrictions?
Northern Ireland was put under a strict two-week lockdown, that lasted from 27th November to 11th December, when the Executive ordered all non-essential services to close, including most hospitality. This came after a huge surge in the number of COVID-19 cases risked incapacitating hospitals in the country.
Now, Northern Ireland is past the two-week closure. The lifting of restrictions have been caveated by the warning that more may follow if cases spike. The country’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, said the Executive was “disappointed” there wasn’t a significant reduction in the rate of transmission and urged the public to be “sensible”, limiting social contact in order to curb the need for more, tougher restrictions.
Whilst services including those in the hospitality sector have been reopened, the safety of having done so is in doubt. Governmental officials are generally of the view that the lifting of restrictions after a two-week closure was the right decision; Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill claimed the decision was endorsed by the chief medical officer for Northern Ireland, but even she recognised that it did come with a risk.
What have the scientific advisers said?
However, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride and the Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Ian Young advised the Executive, for there to be a “reasonable chance” to keep the R-rate (the rate of transmission) at or below 1, hospitality and close-contact services would need to be kept shut after 11th December. However, they too recognise the strain on the country’s economy and the societal impact of taking such advice onboard, therefore, emphasised the decision was the ministers’.
According to a statement published on 4th December, after the 11th of December sporting events would resume but with a limit of 500 spectators at any outdoor sporting event. Outdoor events and gatherings are subject to a risk assessment if more than 15 people are in attendance. No more than 500 participants are permitted, with measures in place to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. Inter-school competitive events aren’t allowed to go ahead.
Northern Ireland will have similar easing of restrictions as England for 5 days over the Christmas period, with Ms Foster imploring people not to “ruin [the prospect] by being reckless in the next number of weeks”.
Reactions to the decision to open up
The decision to open up has been taken with businesses and mental health in mind. Although, not all business owners believe this will give them the respite they might have hoped for. Owner of Sally’s of Omagh, John McGirr, will not be opening his restaurant as “there’s no certainty on how long” they’d be able to open. “There’s a chance you’d be be buying more for Christmas and then be told ‘you’re closing tomorrow’”, he told the BBC.
Michael Flanagan is also a business owner. He fears a “terrible spike” in cases “in January”, so does not think opening would be a wise decision. He added he fears progress on the vaccine would mean people may “drop their guard”.
This year has been a difficult one, and the impact on mental health and the economy has been particularly dire. However, to suggest the threat is any less real and to allow respite now may have dangerous consequences. The coronavirus isn’t giving anyone respite from its hold. The tool to help lessen the virus’s grip has only just begun to be rolled out.