I am in the process of drafting a reply. Something along the lines of:
I see Mr. Mason Powell has seen fit to respond to my letter arguing for an all island approach to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic by calling it a "disgraceful slur on unionist politicians". (Write Back, April 9th.)
In a long letter, name checking me in almost every paragraph, he makes not one reference to the widespread epidemiological research and expert opinion arguing that an all-island approach is the only viable approach to suppressing the virus - as most recently expressed by Professor Samuel McConkey on your own opinion page.
The sad fact, as noted by Dr. Gabriel Scally, President of the Epidemiology and Public Health section of the Royal Society of Medicine, is that UK government scientists initially considered WHO advice for managing the pandemic as "relevant only to low- and middle-income countries", and instead chose to follow "a novel and unevidenced approach" known as "herd immunity" with the result that the official published headline figure for deaths in the UK is now 170 people per million population, whereas in the Republic it is 74.
But worse than that, the Irish figure includes deaths in nursing homes and other residential care homes which make up 54% of the Irish total - in line with other European countries. The UK figures do not include deaths outside hospitals - almost uniquely in the world - and are thus a very considerable under-estimate. If like in the Republic, UK deaths in Nursing homes are also 54% of the true total, the figure for total deaths in the UK is 370 per million of population, or exactly 5 times the Irish rate.
But it gets even worse. The UK generally only tests for Covid-19 on admission to hospital with the result that rate of testing for Covid-19 is only about one third the Irish rate per million inhabitants. How many more Covid-19 cases and deaths would be uncovered if Britain tripled its testing rate by extending it to mildly symptomatic cases in the community? At the moment, even those who die from Covid-19 in the wider community are not recorded as such or at least not included in the national statistics even if they are tested and found to be positive.
It is impossible, at this stage, to estimate accurately just how great an under-count of actual covid-19 deaths this results in, but if only half of actual UK Covid-19 deaths are in Hospitals or nursing homes, this would result in deaths per Million inhabitants being anything up to ten times higher in the UK than in Ireland. (Death rates and testing figures courtesy of https:/www.worldometers.info/coronavirus as of 14/04/2020).
The point of raising these statistics is not to engage in some sort of morbid international league table, but rather to illustrated the fact that certain anti-pandemic strategies have been shown to work rather better than others. Left to its own devices, absent social distancing counter-measures, Covid-19 has been shown to double the number of infections in a society every 3 days, with the result that a 15 day delay in implementing stringent social distancing protocols can result in a 32 fold increase in total infections, and ultimately deaths. That is the nature of the exponential infection curve and the existential crisis we are dealing with.
Fortunately the infection seems to have arrived rather later in N. Ireland than in Britain, with the result that the delay in cancelling mass gatherings, closing schools and businesses, and implementing social distancing protocols may not have quite the same catastrophic effects we are seeing in Britain. Many citizens also appear to have begun to implement social distancing measures before being instructed to do so by the government. With luck, we can use the Irish sea to our advantage and test and quarantine all incoming travellers from more highly infected regions and thus succeed in suppressing the pandemic altogether on this island.
I fear it is too late to implement that strategy in Britain where millions may already be infected and spreading the disease unknown to themselves for lack of community testing and because the disease so often presents with only mild or non-existent symptoms, especially in its early stages.
But any effort to suppress the disease on this island can only succeed if we jointly pursue a strategy of widespread testing and contact tracing and strict controls on all incoming passengers at all ports and airports, north and south. Mr. Mason Powell mentions the 141 Garda checkpoints along the border during the foot and mouth crisis - I can assure him there were many more than that throughout the country these last few days preventing people from venturing more than 2KM from their homes except on urgent and essential business.
I am also pleased to note that since my letter was published the Irish and N. Irish public health and government officials have concluded a much needed but rather late in the day agreement to "cooperate" on Covid-19 containment and suppression arrangements in the future. I am sorry if Mr. Mason Powell feels that my criticism of N. Ireland politicians for their tardiness in coming to such arrangements earlier represents a "slur on unionist politicians", but as you can see from the above this is a life and death matter, possibly for many thousands, both north and south of the border.
I can understand why some unionist politicians and commentators may feel there is a nationalist agenda behind some calls for an all island approach, but the fact is that viruses like Covid-19 know no borders. The same argument we are having here is happening all over Europe between neighbouring countries pursuing different anti-pandemic strategies with the result that the pan-European response has been a mess, and much less effective than the strategies pursued in some Asian countries.
It would be a pity if we were to let different political allegiances interfere in the development of a comprehensive and coherent anti-pandemic response. Covid-19 could end up killing far more people on this island than the Troubles ever did. It's time to bury the hatchet and work together, but that also means implementing strategies that have been shown to work better, regardless of who proposed them first.