The Irish and British responses to Coronavirus – different or just equally bad?

The British Government’s approach to the Coronavirus has been the subject of much, almost smug, criticism on this side of the Irish Sea.  In the North nationalists, and not only they, have called for an all-island approach and rejection of the British strategy of ‘herd immunity’.  Every British failure has been criticised and the response of the Irish Government lauded.

This was boosted enormously by the speech of acting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, standing between the Tricolour and flag of the European Union, in bright contrast to the performance of Boris Johnson, sandwiched between two union flags.  The serious and statesmanlike approach of Varadkar was taken as so much more apposite than the unpredictable and sometimes incoherent ramblings of the Tory leader.  The two countries were adopting very different approaches and there was no doubt which was the better, even if Varadkar did a Churchill by saying ‘never will so many ask so much of so few’.

However, when all is said and done there is more than a little bollocks to such a view.   There are certainly more similarities than differences, starting with the flag waving as the cover for a host of failures.

Ostensibly, the Irish approach is to avoid exposure of the population and to reprise the South Korean model of testing, contact tracing and then appropriate isolation.  It has also taken more extreme measures to lockdown the population, for example by limiting outside exercise to within 2 kilometres of the home, and appearing to close down its economic activity even more drastically than the British.

The perception that this is a more responsible and sensible approach is one reason it has received popular support, although the same forces of compliance and deference apply in Ireland as much as in Britain.  Rallying round together in face of the enemy is a natural response even if it is conflated with rallying round a political leadership that has done nothing to deserve it.  And that is the most obvious similarity between the two countries.

But not only that.  The NHS has been subject to at least a decade of underfunding and misleadership that has led it to be woefully unprepared for any crisis, never mind this one. The current Fine Gael administration is the most openly right-wing and pro-free market of all the parties, which caused it to be decisively rejected at the last general election, not least because even in an economic boom the Irish health services are seen as a mess.

In February it was reported that 677,344 cases were on the waiting list with over 12,000 left on trolleys in January, the second worst month on record.  2019 was the worst year ever for hospital overcrowding as 118,367 patients were left without beds during the year.  This level of overcrowding showed that the Irish health system had insufficient capacity before the crisis and is utterly unprepared to deal with much greater demands now.  The ‘Irish Times’ reported on the front page of its 9 April edition that ‘emergency care doctors have expressed concern that the peak of the most critically ill coronavirus patients has yet to hit hospitals as existing intensive care units approach full capacity.’

As for the expected surge, the chief executive of Nursing Home Ireland has said that ‘nursing homes are effectively dealing with the surge that the hospitals were expecting.’  This has led to ‘clusters’ of the virus appearing in 137 nursing homes and other residential facilities, up from 4 on 21 March.  It is primarily the old who are dying, with the last reported median age of fatalities being 81.  The Irish State is proving no more capable of protecting its older citizens than the British.

The Irish health system is so bad the NHS is held up as an examplar, mainly because of the gross inequality in Ireland arising from health insurance that gives you greater access than public patients.

While, just like Britain, the policy is to protect the service, both states are near the bottom of hospital beds and ICU beds per capita.  The Government has hatched a deal to use private hospitals for public patients but this has led to protests from consultants that their private patients will not receive necessary treatment.

In both jurisdictions the Government has promised levels of testing that they have completely failed to deliver, which is possibly even more egregious in the case of Ireland given its so-called strategy. Johnson and his Government have gone from promising 250,000 tests a day, to promises of 100,000 by the end of the month (made at the start of it), while on 8 April Public Health England was reporting a testing capacity of 14,000.

In Ireland the Minister of Health promised 15,000 tests per day on March 19, while two weeks later the total was 1,500.  Almost a week after that, Dr Jack Lambert from the Mater Hospital in Dublin was asking ‘how can you talk about flattening the curve where you’re testing such small numbers of people and people are queuing up to get testing?’

In nursing homes some tests have taken 10 days or more for results to come through.  There are also reports of delays in tracing people having contact with those testing positive, making a total nonsense of the supposed strategy. Never mind, the Irish Minister of Health has promised action by the end of the month as well.

Shortages of Personal Protection Equipment exist in Ireland just as they exist in Britain, exposing health and care workers to the virus and onward transmission to the patients, clients and residents they care for.  Again, the chief executive of Nursing Home Ireland has said that nursing homes are suffering severe shortages, with just 51 receiving enough, and then only for three days normal usage, while 63 others are still waiting for a delivery.  Promises made by the Minister of Health to the sector have not been delivered.  Not that hospitals have all they need, St Vincent’s in Dublin has warned that it is facing ‘considerable difficulty’ in sourcing masks, and that the ‘ongoing availability of masks cannot be guaranteed’.

In Britain there are numerous reports of threats to NHS staff who go to the media to explain the consequences of Government failure.  Weekly clapping on behalf of NHS workers is evidence of widespread support for the service, but the silencing of NHS workers demonstrates that the NHS is not ‘our’ NHS; it is owned, run and controlled by the same state that has so abysmally failed to protect its own workers.  Were the NHS really an example of socialism we would not have its workers afraid to speak out – they would own, run, and control it and be able to speak openly.

In their place we have daily press conferences, where questions routinely don’t get answered, including by the experts, while data is misleading – the figures of those infected are next to worthless and the total number dying isn’t even accurate.  But at least in Britain they have daily press conferences where questions are asked, and there is a pretence at answering; the Irish Government has distinguished itself by its even greater secrecy, opposition to accountability or examination of its policies.  Instead, as everywhere else, moral commands induce moral outrage as a substitute for critical engagement.

Even that voice of the restrained and sober middle class, ‘The Irish Times’, has editorialised on the difficulty of obtaining information, e.g. on waiting times for test samples, on the backlog of tests, the state’s stock of protective equipment, the real-time state of ICUs, and how the virus is interacting with other conditions.  It has noted the ‘discomfort with scrutiny’ and Ministers’ requests that questions be sent in advance.

This follows the Executive’s attempt to shut down debate in the Dail, which was rejected.  This, from a Government without a mandate, that has shut down large parts of the economy sending unemployment rocketing; instituted strict limits on free movement, and introduced draconian measures that give the Garda the power to arrest you for refusing to obey instructions or to give your name and address.

We are informed that the decisive intervention that ensured the Garda got such powers was the Garda itself, through the Commissioner Drew Harris, ex of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Police Service of Northern Ireland, recalling for me that the date of birth question was always the one that refusal to answer might lead you to being lifted by the RUC.

We can see that the Irish State has done nothing to warrant either the praise or trust it has received.  Yet it cannot hide forever from the inadequacies of the health system for which it is responsible. It will also not be able to make good its promise that the cost of shutting down the economy and temporarily supporting incomes  will not lead to austerity further down the line.  This is simply a lie.

At the same time as coronavirus has consumed attention, the politicians and media have been obsessing over the formation of a new Government, with the prospect of a coalition between the two reactionary civil war parties, ruled out so categorically, now looking more likely.  The complaint of both is that no other Party wants to join them, such is the distrust.  Except for Sinn Fein, which says a lot about all three.

However, rather than the problem being lack of a Government, the problem is lack of an opposition.  The trade union movement is disarmed because of state subsidies for those affected by unemployment although this is unsustainable and will not be sustained.  The left is in thrall to massive state intervention, which it talks and acts as if is some sort of socialism, when it is not.  The authoritarian measures are opposed but not vehemently because these have not yet become unpopular.  Not for the first time the potential to present an alternative is lost, because no alternative is presented.

7 thoughts on “The Irish and British responses to Coronavirus – different or just equally bad?

  1. You make three points.
    First the Irish State is failing to deal with the corona virus. This is not in doubt most States are failing, this is because the enemy is a hidden one hard to fight. Some States though, have been better than others in finding the enemy and therefore protecting the life of people. I never said Ireland was doing particularly well on this score, in fact the article I wrote for SD about testing was longer than the published one.
    Here is one of the absent lines that I left out for the sake of brevity; Ireland has done well on testing provided that the only comparison is with the UK, and this is the only one that matters for Irish nationalists, it does not compare well with the rest of the world, it is only of mid table status. So no more boasting please about our own great performance…. In fact I wrote the article for three reasons one to highlight were Ireland really stood on testing and how dependent the Irish was administration on Germany. The third reason was to highlight the fact the early evidence suggests that only a small number of people have been infected with the virus leaving us way short of Herd Immunity. I also said this was only a provisional conclusion based on limited sample data.
    As a matter of fact quite a few media outlets have been looking at the data comparing Ireland and Britain, yesterday the New York Times published some graphs, the Guardian did it only this morning as did Sky news. They all wondered why Ireland had tested twice as many people as the UK, and had half the death rate. The above facts of course do not matter in your ideological mind, all States are bad the same way all birds seem to have the same colour in the dead of night.
    The second point refers to my opinion on workers staying away from the workplace. The reason why so many people are not working is because they believe their particular workplace could be unsafe for them, no data on infection rates, no face masks etc. The Governments of the world have not forced people from the workplaces as such, the workers were already leaving in droves, and many of those essential workers left behind have acted out of conscience, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see even the health and care workers leaving their posts given the context. Both GPs and nurses have already threatened to strike and about a third of them are currently absent saying they are sick. I am all right jack quip is an instance of irony.
    I am well aware of the statement by Marx ; Every child knows a nation which ceases to work, will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks would perish, is buzzing in the heads of some ‘marxists’. Well we can test the validity of the statement, we have already got past the few weeks part.
    Maybe Marx he did not mean it to apply the proposition in all circumstances, this is one of the trouble with those who quote Marx, lack of context, after all how in the past did workers seek to break with capitalism, they enacted the general strike, stayed away from work. Sometimes they did indeed take control of the workplaces, but in more propitious circumstances, I don’t think they ever did it in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Maybe I am wrong about the past history, I confess to not knowing about how the 1918 flu pandemic impacted on the workers.
    It seems to me that the various Governments are going to try to send most workers back to the their work places sooner rather than later, risking a second wave in the winter months that will be even worse than the first one, not only will we have a reborn Corona virus to content with, we will also have to face up to a return of the flu. So I warn against rushing back to work on terms set out by the Government and the employers, I did predict weeks ago that the bosses and their Governments would soon discover the greatness of face masks after denying them all along.
    Your last point takes me back to what has become you favourite hobbyhorse on this blog, warning after warning against what you call the menace of The State, you don’t even qualify this warning by adding the capitalist State, as for a workers State well in your world this was always a mistake. With you these days it is always The State that is the main enemy, you are as persistent as the libertarian capitalists over at the Von Mises web site on this score. You once wrote an article directed against the anarchists for always droning on about the State I will refrain from quoting it against you.

    • The passage you left out of your original contribution adds clarity to your position. Your statement that I believe all states to be equally bad – bad in what way? – is not supported by what I have said. You were also not accused of saying that Ireland was doing better than the UK in terms of saving lives.

      It is true that many workers did not want to go into the workplace. I know that, even from my own employment, just as I know many were willing to do so, just as health staff generally were and still are wiling to go to work. My point, which you do not contest, is that if many did not the situation would be an awful lot worse. Attention should therefore be focused on making their working arrangements safer.

      But perhaps you do believe that Marx was wrong that society can continue tolerably well without people working for weeks or months? In this regard it is appropriate that the Office for Budget Responsibility in Britain has warned today that Britain’s economy could shrink by 35% this spring and unemployment soar by more than 2 million. The IMF has warned of the world economy suffering its worst blow since the great depression of the 1930s. This will certainly take many lives that could have been saved.

      It is not clear what you advocate. In the comment above you warn against a return to work ‘risking a second wave in the winter months that will be even worse than the first one, not only will we have a reborn Corona virus to content with, we will also have to face up to a return of the flu.’ But two weeks ago you said the following:

      ‘Stopping too many getting sick at once is not the same thing stopping the virus, the mass of the people under the law of instrumental rationality should expect to get the virus at some point, if not today, maybe next month or the one after that. In fact most people are deluding themselves that they can avoid getting the infection, they can only do so if a miracle happens, a vaccine turns soon up or a herd immunity develops over a longer time.’

      Finally, you claim the need to take things in context and I agree. You reprimand me for criticising the state and saying this is a ‘hobyhorse’ of mine, although you agree that it is the state’s responsibility to protect people, so I am at a loss at how my criticism could be misplaced. You also criticise me for not adding ‘capitalist’ when I mention the state, when the article is about the Irish and British States. I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that either of these is other than capitalist.

    • “Well we can test the validity of the statement, we have already got past the few weeks part.”

      Except we haven’t seen any nation actually stop producing! If we had then the electricity would have gone off, water supplies would have gone off, and so on.

  2. I Read your article carefully this time, usually do not print it and then read it slowly. Both Irish and British Governments have been following the same course, they both started out believing that the only functional strategy for a capitalist society in the face of the pandemic would be to follow a herd immunity strategy, I wrote a first response to this weeks ago predicting that no democratic Government would have the nerves of steal to follow a herd immunity strategy, if the authoritarian CCP couldn’t do it then no other Government could, the middle class sector would revolt against it even if we discount the working class. There was much chatter in the USA by libertarians that only the USA could do it, indeed a blog that I often read about all things Darwin and politics, Darwinian Conservatism by Larry Arnhart set out, I kid you not the Constitutional case for herd immunity’. However even the sociopath Trump lost his nerve and , resorted to in his own words ‘closing down the economy’, as for the other outlier Sweden, they are trying an experiment half one and half the other. When the going gets tough, when the bodies start piling up because there is no more room in the morgues they too will resort to closing down the economy.

    Modern society, capitalist and semi capitalist is in essence technological, what follows is that modern society feels humiliated by the corona pandemic, the lasting image is one of helplessness and desperation. The only solution available so far has been a resort to the medieval method of stopping the spread of the pathogen. There are least 40 different teams composed of the best biologists racing for a vaccine, it is reported that a team based in Oxford will have a vaccine ready to test on volunteers by September, if you listen you can hear the shouts of hallelujah!

    Your problem is that you have asked for an alternative based on socialists values to be deployed to combat the failures of the State but then fall silent. Maybe your silence is inevitable, given the fact that socialism and social distancing are mutually exclusive, all of the tactics of socialism require social solidarity, people getting together in the form of mass demonstrations, mass strike meetings, committee meetings, in short collective organisation, in simple terms everything we are all currently afraid of, when I go out for a walk people avoid me like I am carrying the plague, I suffer from permanent rhinitis, meaning sneezing about 40 times a day, you can picture the reaction.

    One of the best political ironies of late was the 1 ‘million man’ feminist demonstration that took place in Madrid on the 9th March, even though doctors had asked the ‘socialist’ organisers to cancel because of fear the virus might take off in Madrid, they refused and 120,000 feminists turned out some carrying banners with words like ‘more women are killed by Men than the Virus.’ I read later that at least three of the platform speakers caught the virus, and Madrid is one of the worst cities in the world to be living in to avoid getting caught out by the evil genius.

    PS: you can find a selection of countries and how well they are doing on testing over at SD with my latest report on Germany, Ireland is doing a good bit better than both UK and the US, though I awarded it only a bronze meddle. The best place to be right now is New Zealand, should have went there on holiday and got stuck, anyway I am ready for anything, I have full body protection from head to toe, I bought all the best equipment weeks before it all kicked off, so I’am all right Jack!

    • You say that Ireland is doing a good bit better than both the UK and US in terms of testing, and I have looked at your figures which support your assertion. The effectiveness of these tests, the number of people tested, who they were etc is not reported, and I have noted that there is increasing evidence, more since I researched the post, that some of the tests in Ireland are next to worthless due to delays and failure to follow up. Since testing is central to the Government’s claims about its strategy for dealing with the virus, in a way that the other two countries quoted are not, I think I am justified in stating that the Irish State is failing.

      I’ve just watched the Minister of Health, Simon Harris, on RTE tell us the number of new cases that there would be next Sunday if there were no intervention by the state, based on modelling. A fairly low bar, one would have thought, but perhaps appropriate in this case. It’s a pity Simon Harris can’t tell us with any degree of confidence how many infections there actually are, today, in reality and not in models.

      In the article you reference you state that ‘Workers and those who purport to support them need to be sure that the virus is beaten or well in retreat before they recommend a return to normal working conditions.” You should reflect on the fact that workers in the biggest employer in Ireland, health and social care, do not have the luxury of waiting until we are all sure that the virus is beaten, unless you propose that they too refrain from working. But why only them?

      Water and sewerage workers provide an essential service, and if these services failed the impact on public health would make the closure of the health service look inconsequential. What about the electricity industry? Without it society could hardly function. Or what about the food and transport sectors? The loss of these would be much more damaging than the virus. But why should these workers be considered lesser, or does your total opposition to a return to normal working exclude whole sections of the working class, which in your terms means their sacrifice for the rest, including yourself. Your throw-away remark ‘I am alright Jack’ is unfortunately an accurate description of your approach.

      You state that ‘Your problem is that you have asked for an alternative based on socialists values to be deployed to combat the failures of the State but then fall silent.’ Not quite, but not altogether wrong either.

      In the post I regretted the lack of a socialist alternative reflected in the belief that state income subsidies were sustainable and state intervention some sort of socialism. Your view about the mass of workers staying away from work implies you suffer from the same delusion, at least in respect of the former. This is par for the course for much of the left who think of socialism in terms of equality of income and not of control of production. The latter would involve the unions agitating for workplaces to remain open under workers control to produce whatever goods are necessary for society to continue to function, producing goods that would help fight the virus, and to ensure implementation of policies that would protect the most vulnerable. Only the last should be properly identified and shielded from potential exposure. Much of the left has forgotten that if you don’t make anything no amount of money will allow you to buy it.

      In my first post on the virus I called on ordinary people to take their own action to protect the most vulnerable and unsurprisingly this has happened everywhere. Of course, it is not enough but to the extent it is woefully inadequate this is because of the previous point – you can’t distribute what hasn’t been made.

      In the second post I noted that ‘we have dependence on the state which breeds deference and subservience instead of critical thought. The illusions that arise are all the greater for their being based on real dependence.’ In other words, I don’t have an alternative to the failures of the state, or rather we – the left – don’t have an alternative in reality. In terms of myself, at least I should point to the need for one in theory and what in general it might look like, and in this respect I have not ‘fallen silent.’

    • “no democratic Government would have the nerves of steal to follow a herd immunity strategy”

      Sweden is, and its working out pretty well with its infection rate dropping and per capita mortality about half that in the UK, and without the devastation to its economy. Most countries are now recognising that the current lock downs can’t continue and aren’t working.

      But, no one has ever said that the answer is just “herd immunity” other than perhaps Trump. The most sensible approach is to isolate the vulnerable 20%. The average age of those dying is 81, whereas less than 1% of those aged under 60, and without other medical conditions succumb to it, and they probably have other undiagnosed conditions. People have understandably been frightened into agreeing to the lock down, because of persistent propaganda from the media, including social media that has whipped up a moral panic. But, the truth is as the government scientists now admit the vast majority of people dying are old and sick people who were already in the hospital and care system. There was absolutely no scientific basis for the vast majority of other people to be worried by it, or to have been locked down. The actual mortality rate is likely to turn out to be even about a tenth of that for flu, as unlike flu, the vast majority who contract COVID19 don’t even know they have it, or have had it!

      “When the going gets tough, when the bodies start piling up because there is no more room in the morgues they too will resort to closing down the economy.”

      Except they are not. Mortality rates in Sweden are lower than Uk and starting to fall. But, even in the UK the talk about morgues filling up is itself rather hysterical. In Britain, on average, 500,000 people a year die. The worst year recently was 623,000, or a 25% variation from the average. Current COVID19 deaths in Britain stand at 12,000, or less than a tenth of that variation in the worst year to the average, about a twentieth of the variation between the best year and the worst. Given that no resort to mass cremations, mass burials and other such hyperbolic suggestions were required when deaths exceed the average by 123,000, why on Earth should that be required, when currently, UK deaths are still slightly below the average? Could it be that such talk is purely part of a propaganda drive to get support for the lock down?

      “The only solution available so far has been a resort to the medieval method of stopping the spread of the pathogen.”

      What is medieval about developing a vaccine using modern science and technology and reason?

      “Maybe your silence is inevitable, given the fact that socialism and social distancing are mutually exclusive, all of the tactics of socialism require social solidarity, people getting together in the form of mass demonstrations, mass strike meetings, committee meetings, in short collective organisation, in simple terms everything we are all currently afraid of, when I go out for a walk people avoid me like I am carrying the plague.”

      Actually, no. I doubt if we had a healthcare and social care system that was actually owned and controlled by workers that the current deficiencies would exist. I am sure that such a system would have ensured that proper PPE, ventilators and so on were available, as well as the potential for properly isolating patients and residents to prevent the virus spreading amongst these vulnerable populations which is where the majority of deaths are occurring. Your view of socialism based on strikes, demonstrations and so on, is a peculiarly economistic one, and nothing to do with the socialism of Marx based upon collective self organisation and self government.

      “I read later that at least three of the platform speakers caught the virus”

      So what. Tens of millions have caught it, but had no ill effects. Its not catching the virus that is an issue its being seriously ill from it, and only a very tiny percentage of people will do so. By contrast, tens of millions across the globe will die from the economic consequences of destroying the global economy. Its only a small proportion of people – the old and the sick – that are at risk from it, and all policy should have been geared to isolating and protecting them.

      “The best place to be right now is New Zealand”.

      new Zealand is being advised by its experts to drop its current lock down procedures because they are not scientifically well grounded.

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