By Cate McCurry, PA
Significant public health policy alignment on Covid-19 between both sides of the border was a result of ongoing dialogue and cooperation between both health departments, a report has found.
Researchers said that despite the historical and constitutional obstacles to an all-island response to the pandemic, there was evidence of significant public health policy alignment.
North-south cooperation in the response to Covid-19 was studied by researchers from Trinity College Dublin.
The researchers published a study of public health policies for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland during the first wave of the pandemic, from February to June 2020.
The report stated: “While the historical and constitutional politics of the island of Ireland coupled with the coincidental co-occurrence of Brexit were significant obstacles to an all-island response to Covid-19, the framework provided by the Good Friday Agreement enabled public health policy alignment through ongoing dialogue and cooperation between the health administrations in each jurisdiction.”
The report said that parliamentary debates and minutes of meetings revealed regular dialogue between the Public Health Agency and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) in the Republic, including weekly conversations between the chief medical officers.
The report found that alignment was evident in the joint cancellation of St Patrick’s Day parades as well as lockdown policies and restrictions on internal movement, public transport, social distancing measures and the mandatory wearing of face masks.
Policy for testing generally defied interjurisdictional comparison but the number of tests conducted in Northern Ireland compared with the Republic point to more significant policy divergence from May onwards.
Workplace closures occurred in the space of one week in early March, but school closures revealed a more cautious and conservative tendency in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s traditional fault lines.
“This study echoes the findings of a large body of literature acknowledging that public health measures do not occur in a socio-political vacuum and are rarely based on evidence alone,” the report said.
“This complex interplay has been seen in action on both sides of the border over the last year, at times entangled in the ‘cacophonic marketplace’ of differing social and political interests.”
Dr Ann Nolan, Trinity Centre for Global Health, Trinity College and study lead, said: “I came to this study, like everyone else at the time, believing that there was little or no interjurisdictional co-ordination of the response to Covid-19 on the island of Ireland and I’m very happy to find that I was wrong.
“While an all-island response to the pandemic might have been the most desirable approach from the perspective of public health, the historical and constitutional politics of the island of Ireland coupled with the coincidental timing of Brexit made that impossible.
“At a time of some political instability in Northern Ireland, encouragingly, the Good Friday Agreement has enabled public health policy alignment through ongoing dialogue and cooperation between the health administrations in each jurisdiction.
“There is nothing particularly new here: Ireland’s public and civil servants in health and international relations on both sides of the border are to be commended for their continued co-operation for health and consolidation of the commitments of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Dr Sara Burke, Centre for Health Policy and Management, Trinity College and co-author, said: “Comparative health policy analysis is always tricky.
“Researching public health responses to Covid-19 on the island of Ireland in the midst of a pandemic proved this.
“This research involved painstaking analysis of day to day political and public policy decisions in ROI and NI as well as those in Westminster and found contrary to public opinion and rhetoric, a strong alignment between public health decisions across the two jurisdictions.”