Border behind Northern Ireland caution on social distancing rules, says BMA chair

The border with the Republic of Ireland could be the reason for Northern Ireland adopting a more cautious approach to social distancing than England, a leading doctor has said.

Friday, 7th May 2021, 3:51 pm
Updated Saturday, 8th May 2021, 7:08 am
Social distancing rules will be crucial as the hospitality industry continues to reopen. Bootleggers pub on Ann Street in Belfast City Centre. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

England is on course to ditch the so-called ‘one metre plus’ social distancing rule on June 21, meaning pubs and restaurants would no longer be required to make sure people are spaced out to that distance.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there is a “good chance” the one-metre rule could be dispensed with on that date.

But in Northern Ireland the Public Health Agency (PHA) are taking a more cautious approach.

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Dr Stephen Bergin, interim director of public health, told BBC Good Morning Ulster on Friday morning: “We have to learn to live with the virus for the years ahead. The messages stay the same in terms of good hand hygiene, wearing a mask if you’re indoors, social distancing.”

Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland, said the border with the Republic of Ireland could be behind the apparent difference in approach with England.

“Well, they [England] don’t have the cross-border issue the same way that we do,” he told the BBC.

“We see in the Derry and Strabane area a rate of infection that’s treble the Northern Ireland average and Donegal has the highest infection rate in the Republic of Ireland. We see what cross-border traffic does.”

Speaking to the News Letter earlier this week, Dr Black said the difference in restrictions on each side of the border could be driving the higher rates around Co Londonderry and Co Donegal.

Dr Black said: “It’s well known that when the restrictions are different on both sides of the border there will be a movement of people to avail of retail and hospitality opportunities that are available to them close by, but not necessarily in the same jurisdiction.”

Health Minister Robin Swann, meanwhile, has said non-essential cross-border travel must be stopped “by enforcement if required”.

He made the comment in a letter to his counterpart in Dublin Stephen Donnelly.

Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill, meanwhile, has urged health authorities in Northern Ireland to wait until the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) publishes its advice on social distancing before deciding on policy.

“The SAGE advice is due next month,” he told the News Letter. “They have world leading scientists. The PHA guys should recognise that these scientists know more about social distancing.”