Ben Lowry: It wasn’t just schools that shut too readily in the storm, but services such as transport too

Belfast city centre on Monday early afternoon as many shops began to close. Other shops stayed open almost until the last Translink buses left at 5.30pm.  ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Belfast city centre on Monday early afternoon as many shops began to close. Other shops stayed open almost until the last Translink buses left at 5.30pm. ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

On Monday the Met Office stuck to its ‘amber’ weather warning for Northern Ireland, one down from its most severe level ‘red’.

Sure enough, the weather panned out as John Wylie of the Met Office predicted when he spoke to the News Letter that morning: Winds of 55-60 mph, with occasional gusts of 70+ mph in places.

One of the Belfast city centre shops that closed early on Monday.  ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

One of the Belfast city centre shops that closed early on Monday. ''Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

This sort of storm, he said, would probably lead to trees coming down and items such as tiles being dis-lodged. This all happened.

(Met Éireann has different criteria and was facing a more severe storm).

Many storms will be more severe than predicted or less so, even if only fractionally, so the Met Office could have been ultra cautious and gone up to red. This would have protected it from criticism if the storm had been worse than expected, but it would also have undermined the value of future red warnings.

To its credit, the Met Office did not do that. But pressure to err on the side of caution prevailed elsewhere.

A fallen tree blocks the Upper Braniel Road in east Belfast  after storm Ophelia.''Forecasters expected trees to come down but such an 'amber' severity of storm happens about once a year on average in Northern Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

A fallen tree blocks the Upper Braniel Road in east Belfast after storm Ophelia.''Forecasters expected trees to come down but such an 'amber' severity of storm happens about once a year on average in Northern Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

It reached ludicrous heights yesterday, with the second day of school closure.

Closure ensures no-one tasked with making the decision is blamed if a child is injured, however unlikely.

Decision-makers close down debate when they cite safety to justify their choice.

Few people want to look reckless by saying the injury risk is so small it is outweighed by the society-wide inconvenience to families and economic damage caused by closing schools.

John Honza, left, Petra Zaplova, and Annie Kabelaova from Czech Republic at around 6pm, just before the height of the storm in Belfast city centre, but after all buses had been stopped. They all thought the weather was not too bad and were surprised to find everything shut. See the video of them and other people in an empty city centre at www.newsletter.co.uk

John Honza, left, Petra Zaplova, and Annie Kabelaova from Czech Republic at around 6pm, just before the height of the storm in Belfast city centre, but after all buses had been stopped. They all thought the weather was not too bad and were surprised to find everything shut. See the video of them and other people in an empty city centre at www.newsletter.co.uk

We should not assume things would have been better if Stormont was back. Politicians are risk averse too.

If we tried to eliminate all risks, schools would be often be shut. There should be a presumption in favour of keeping schools open unless for exceptional reasons.

It is not even clear that Monday met the threshold – a storm of the severity that reached NI happens about once a year on average.

Yet even after it had gone yesterday, as had been forecast, schools stayed shut.

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor, in the paper's Belfast office

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor, in the paper's Belfast office

Three people died in the Republic of Ireland on Monday. In England in the 1987 Great Storm 18 people died.

Such tragic loss of life underlines that it is sensible to avoid unnecessary journeys in storms. But both figures represent less than one death per million people, and do not indicate extreme risk.

Translink’s cancellation of services on Monday night contrasted with the spirit of the Troubles, when the Ulsterbus boss Werner Heubeck carried hoax bombs off buses to keep them going.

Back then drivers still came into work (as they did on Monday until their bosses stopped services).

Such stoppage has consequences. After the last buses at 5.30pm I took video of people stranded in the city centre (see our website). Bus services are not as vital as medical, policing or fire services, but they are important.

If important but non essential workers had refused to take the risk of travelling to work in a storm, much of society would not function.

The News Letter Belfast office would have closed if security men had stayed home. Our paper would not have published if printers in Portadown had done the same.

The BBC would not have broadcast without staff.

There would be no bread if bakers left the bakery.

Goods would not be on sale without delivery drivers.

Hospitals do not just need doctors and nurses, they need porters and cleaners.

Hundreds of thousands of people went to work on Monday (despite no public transport after 5.30pm). Let’s hope we do not slide into a culture in which they too stay home in future storms.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor