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.