My friend’s 86-year-old mother hasn’t been outside since before the pandemic, except to go to her doctor.
“I’m too scared,” she told me on Wednesday over the phone. And so, after working hard her whole life, and being relatively active, her entire world has become confined to her living room for almost two years. She received her booster jab last week, and yet the fear of catching Covid is always prevalent in her mind.
There are thousands of others like her — elderly, vulnerable, and fearful, for good reason. The majority of those dying at present in our hospitals are older people. The majority of those spreading Covid, according to Northern Ireland’s chief scientific officer Professor Ian Young, are younger.
“Whenever there are very high levels of virus transmission among younger people, which is what we are seeing at the moment, then inevitably that means that more older people become infected,” he told the BBC’s Evening Extra on Thursday.
It isn’t hard to see why. In October, Stormont scrapped social distancing, just in time for Halloween. This horrific decision, which came on the heels of frustrated business sector lobbying, reopened nightclubs, allowing people to literally dance with potential death — unmasked, and up close and personal.
Stormont’s danse macabre inevitably meant the virus indiscriminately increased its hold on the community, just as vaccine efficacy was starting to wane, and with booster programmes in infancy.
Clearly this was madness, when everybody and their isolating granny could see the trajectory of upward transmission.
In the same week, according to the Office for National Statistics, Northern Ireland had the highest proportion of Covid-19 deaths in the UK. The Stormont Executive stuck its head in the sand, just as the health service was coming under increasing pressure.
By the start of that week in October, 177 people had waited longer than 12 hours in emergency departments. Last week, one of those hospitals came short of declaring a major incident, and shut its doors to all but life-threatening cases.
At that stage, only Alliance and the SDLP called for mandatory certification, while other parties refused to nail their colours to the mast, opting instead for “guidance” in relation to the hospitality industry.
In April, Robin Swann said Covid vaccine passports were “not something that sits comfortably” with him. In August, Michelle O’Neill said there would be “a whole lot of human rights concerns”, though was “very open” to the idea after Colum Eastwood publicly called for them.
Last week the Executive, minus the DUP, agreed to the implementation of Covid certification for access to hospitality and other services. The business sector went bananas, complaining that they were being “unfairly targeted”, and the chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, Colin Neill, said his members would be “left to carry the financial and operational burden”.
That remains to be seen, but it is hard to summon sympathy, given that the voluntary uptake of Covid certification when they had the opportunity, was negligible.
Others who have been opposed to any form of Covid certification measures swung into action post announcement, complaining about restriction of freedoms, swamping social media with references to 1930s Germany, microchips, and a new world order.
These are the people who were opposed to masks, opposed to vaccinations; who couldn’t give a flying fiddle about social distancing.
Those who complain about their human rights, yet exercise cognitive dissonance when asked to explain how refusing to follow health advice does not infringe on the rights of those most vulnerable in society, need to be robustly called out.
There is nothing wrong with telling people they are behaving in a selfish and stupid manner, and putting their fellow citizens at risk. Stormont has so far shirked this responsibility, opting instead for the softly-softly approach.
Approximately 85pc of Northern Ireland’s population have received two doses of vaccine, suggesting the public were with politicians in the initial stages of the pandemic. Yet the Government abdicated responsibility in enforcing even the most basic safety measures.
Opting for guidance, rather than legislating was a missed opportunity. The result? Health professionals have told the Executive there has been a marked decline in public compliance.
The epidemiological experts estimate we have three weeks to turn things around. This breakdown of societal ‘ar scáth a chéile’ can be laid directly at Stormont’s door. How on earth could you expect society to shelter each other, when mixed public messaging has allowed society to mingle, minus enforcement of face masks?
The Executive’s public communication strategy is confusing. Look no further than the incongruity of a Health Minister urging people to work from home last week, while the public are still being encouraged by the Department for the Economy to boost the business sector by shopping with their pre-paid cards before the deadline expires. Hello?
The message that Stormont needs to cut through the “I’m alright Jack” brigade is that living with Covid — or living as if it doesn’t exist — is no good if your living irresponsibly means potentially killing someone else.
The announcement of mandatory Covid certification is a good start, and is already showing benefits, with a marked increase in people making vaccine appointments this week, according to the head of the vaccination programme, Patricia Donnelly.
Still, the lack of political accountability is nothing short of a disgrace. The First and Deputy First Ministers have not held a Covid press conference in months, which leaves the impression that they are naval gazing rather than governing.
We are facing a bleak midwinter, and our health service is facing unsustainable numbers of hospital patients. Stormont needs to manage this crisis, before it turns catastrophic. The chief medical officer Michael McBride, faced with a crumbling health service, is urging the public to show “respect for our elderly” in respect of adhering to public health measures.
Stormont cannot continue to advocate for the public to take personal responsibility while simultaneously shirking its own in enforcement and unified, swift, decision-making.
Unfortunately, people like my friend’s mother will continue to remain fearful, lacking confidence in the politicians’ ability to keep them safe. Can you blame them?