Sam McBride: After darkness, light: Reasons for real hope as Northern Ireland vaccine rollout accelerates – but first expect political rows

For exactly one year, Northern Ireland has been battling coronavirus. And for almost as long, orange and green politics has infected Stormont’s response to the virus.

Saturday, 27th February 2021, 8:25 am
After a year of darkness, there is hope of a surprisingly rapid relaxation of restrictions – which could be more durable than before. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Twelve months ago, at a hastily-convened Thursday evening press conference, chief medical officer Michael McBride announced Northern Ireland’s first case of a virus which at that point had killed 2,700 people across the world but was still poorly understood.

After a grim year of plague, death, lockdown, and economic devastation, there is now genuine hope – and Northern Ireland is close to the forefront of that global optimism.

This week Northern Ireland passed half a million doses having been administered. That means that more than a third of the adult population have significant protection from the virus.

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“If you consider that a year ago we had no vaccine at all and now have a third of the Northern Ireland population vaccinated – it’s just phenomenal,” says Professor Ultan Power.

The Queen’s University Belfast virologist has spent his career studying respiratory viruses. As with many experts in their field, Professor Power was largely unknown to the wider public until last year.

But the pandemic has transformed that, with the Waterford-born scientist emerging in television studios and radio programmes as a sober voice authoritatively explaining a life and death topic.

Now, he is feeling “very hopeful” about where Northern Ireland is headed: “A lot of these people who have got the vaccine are those most vulnerable to the virus so the impact on severe disease and deaths is likely to be pretty high”.

A decision by the UK to delay the second dose for 12 weeks, rather than three weeks as in most other countries, has helped increase the number of people receiving at least one dose and early research appears to vindicate the UK decision.

For a brief period as the vaccine rollout began, Northern Ireland was the third-best performing country in the world (excluding microstates such as Gibraltar). That is no longer the case, but we are still in the top handful of nations – overwhelmingly because the UK approach to the vaccine has been world-leading.

A Stormont source involved in the programme described it as a “huge logistical challenge”, delivering two vaccines with radically different requirements – one requiring extreme cold, and a short period in which it is efficacious.

By contrast, the Republic of Ireland is far behind – the latest data suggests that about 7% of its citizens have got a first dose. The Republic’s slow start is largely because it is tied to the EU vaccine agreement which has been beset by bureaucracy, bad decisions and more cautious decision-making than the UK.

Perhaps inevitably, that has led to some pretty indiscreet flag-waving by some DUP politicians – symmetrical political opportunism to that of Sinn Fein, whose leader said last summer that the health crisis could be a greater accelerant for Irish unity than Brexit. Yet the pandemic has revealed a far more complicated truth than suggested by either of those two positions.

Just a few weeks ago, ambulances from the Republic were coming north to assist a creaking NHS system struggling to cope with soaring hospitalisations, while the Republic rapidly went from having the best position in Europe around Christmas to the highest infection rate in the world at the start of last month. While it is natural to take pride in local achievements, attaching nationalistic fervour to a rapidly changing public health emergency is not just in dubious taste, but also unwise.

As Katy Balls wrote in The Spectator earlier this month, “until a few weeks ago, the government’s track record on Covid was one of repeated failure” – something now transformed by the success of its vaccine strategy. If Boris Johnson’s administration deserves criticism for debacles over PPE, slow lockdowns and high death rates, then it is also due praise for having made seemingly farsighted and wise decisions in another part of this complex evolving problem right.

Data analyst Peter Donaghy, who has been following the statistical releases on the vaccine rollout closely from the outset, says that Northern Ireland appears to be getting its population share of the UK vaccine in the same way as England, Scotland and Wales. At various points, each of the nations have been ahead or behind each other, but now they are closer than ever and the data suggests that supply might be restricted in one region to ensure a fair distribution overall. The UK has now vaccinated more of its population than any other large country, he says.

However, the data may be slightly deceptive about the Republic. It is far behind the UK, but its figures lag by two days, and are released very late in the day, meaning that charts can be three days out of date for the Republic - making that gap seem even greater than it is.

And the Irish government’s projections suggest that it could rapidly catch up with Northern Ireland, if vaccine deliveries arrive as expected.

“It looks like we’re doing much better than the Republic and they will likely lag behind until the summer because of their slower start – but they will probably catch up with us quite quickly over the next few months,” says Mr Donaghy.

Professor Power believes that at current rates 80% of the population is likely to be vaccinated in Northern Ireland by late August, and a month later for the Republic – although if increased supply or the new one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is approved, that timeframe could be shortened.

The New York Times has projected that the UK could have offered everyone the vaccine by June 25.

Mr Donaghy’s calculations, extrapolated from projected vaccinations in England, are even more optimistic, suggesting that as early as May everyone in Northern Ireland could be offered their first dose.

The increasing vaccination rates come in tandem with falling case numbers – although last week’s ONS data still has Northern Ireland as the most infected part of the UK – and improving weather, a factor in suppressing the virus.

Professor Power is “very optimistic” that we could be back to “relative normality” by the summer – although that is likely to still involve wearing of masks and social distancing.

However, his concern is that political pressure to relax restrictions too quickly could be counterproductive in the longer term: “I’d be crying out saying ‘please be patient’ – another few weeks or a couple of months could make a fantastic difference to the long-term situation.”

The reason, he says, is that the more of the virus that is in circulation, the greater the chance of it mutating into new forms which are far deadlier or which the vaccines may not defeat.

Yet, while some politicians may have newfound respect for science’s role in saving lives, deciding when and how to relax restrictions involves inherently political decisions which require balancing multiple risks and harms.

This week has seen DUP figures again talking tough about moving faster out of lockdown – although continuing to go along with the Executive strategy implies that the party is merely seeking to win political support for being outspoken, rather than causing a crisis by seeking to force decisions.

Nevertheless, the Executive’s ideological chasm still exists and is likely to become more obvious in coming weeks. Sinn Féin may be reluctant to move ahead of the Republic, even though increased vaccination rates in NI may justify that.

But while repeated political spats have made this an inglorious episode for the Executive, the work of scientists, medics, volunteers, military logical experts, civil servants – and yes, politicians , as well as many others has contributed to a vaccine which is saving lives and may let real life resume in the near future.

That is long overdue good news.

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