UK’s reopening strategy threatens to derail Association’s all-island approach to Covid-19
By March 8, outdoor sporting facilities will reopen in the UK. By May 17, up to 10,000 supporters will be able to attend sporting fixtures
These are just some of the many eye-catching reopening milestones unveiled by Boris Johnson in Westminster yesterday. Our own situation is strikingly vague and conservative by comparison.
Regardless of the UK’s unenviable Covid response to date, Boris and Co have now set the tone for the rest of Europe to follow in terms of reopening. Holy season of Lent aside, it will be impossible not “to Covet thy neighbor’s goods” in this instance.
If we have learnt anything over the past year, it is that no sooner will you get public support for entering restrictions, than that same buy-in will gradually dissipate as lockdown impatience increases.
Case numbers become normalised, and almost meaningless as we all find ways to justify our slackened behaviour. Eventually we all succumb to the path of least resistance, which as of yesterday, now has a Union Jack emblazoned across it. Human nature is an unreckonable force. A lazy generalisation maybe, but not without a large grain of truth.
Irrespective of largely being a supporter of the Government’s approach to date, my concerns at present centre around the palpable souring of public mood, coupled with the now likely decoupling between ourselves and Northern Ireland. Together they have the potential to pose some major challenges for the GAA as we try to navigate our own return to play schedule.
Whilst the Northern Ireland Executive can still plot their own reopening schedule, such is the polarising nature of Stormont politics, our Unionist friends will in all likelihood align with London’s timelines, that are unquestionably more progressive than what is being considered here. Nationalist politicians will find themselves in a lose-lose situation, having to choose between keeping society locked down, or siding with London. There is only one realistic outcome here.
In a few weeks’ time, just a few miles up the road from where I am sitting now, golf courses, soccer and rugby pitches will be buzzing, whilst neighboring GAA grounds will remain in lockdown. A one-island GAA approach to Covid has been of paramount importance to date, and has largely been understood and accepted. It won’t be easy this time around, especially if our own lockdown continues beyond Easter.
Nothing emanating from Government corridors to date has indicated otherwise, with Micheál Martin poised to announce a highly conservative roadmap today, by comparison to what Boris unveiled yesterday.
Pressure on Martin will mount exponentially over the coming days and weeks, as the reality of a two-island approach sinks in. Few organisations will feel this dichotomy more than the GAA. Especially when it comes to our kids.
Over the past few weeks, no shortage of column inches have been dedicated to the importance of getting our children back out playing together on our safe pitches. I don’t need to bang that same drum. I just hope these voices are being heard.
Any conversations I have these days, the same question is being asked of me. ‘When will the football be back?’ My simple answer has been, ‘Get the schools back first, and then we can start talking about playing some football and hurling’.
At the time of writing, despite rumours, I still have no confirmation as to when my two boys might be back in school. Up the road, children could very well be out playing on local soccer pitches before my boys get to meet their school friends again.
Even amid the understandable frustration around inter-county GAA’s ‘non-elite’ status, I always was of the opinion that there was no realistic case for reopening our grounds when the schools remained closed.
Until we can safely get our children and our teachers back to where they want to be, the GAA would be on a hiding to nothing attempting to get the inter-county season up and running.
Yet just when we felt that milestone was being conquered, Boris has gone and thrown a major spanner in the works, by precepting a likely divergence between the reopening schedules for Northern Ireland and ourselves.
Of all the obstacles that have been successfully overcome in the past 12 months, the GAA will likely face into one of its greatest challenges in the coming weeks. Amidst a growing unrest and lockdown fatigue, maintaining a one-island approach to the reopening of our grounds and recommencing of our games will be difficult to say the least.
Safety, as always, will be paramount, but as time passes, the word ‘safety’ has begun to take on a different meaning. As our most vulnerable become vaccinated, many will begin to feel that the UK’s approach has strong merit, regardless of what went before.
Season 2021 will arrive eventually, of that I have no doubt. However, the final mile on that journey is shaping up to be one of the most challenging.