Victoria White: Contrasting political culture led to very different approach to crisis

The distance between our less-than-perfect but far more urgent response to Covid-19 and that of the UK will interest future historians. Right now, it is just scary, writes Victoria White.

<UK chancellor Rishi Sunak with prime minister Boris Johnson speaking in Downing St on coronavirus. Britain’s political culture has led to a different response than that pursued here in Ireland.    Picture: Matt Dunham/PA

Liverpool's Concert Square was thronged with St Patrick’s Day revellers on Tuesday while Dublin’s O’Connell St was deserted.

It would be hard to find a more stark illustration of the effect of public health policy on behaviour.

On Monday, the Brits were urged to stay away from pubs and restaurants and to observe social distancing. Our pubs and bars were closed by public order on Sunday.

Public health policy shapes behaviour. Stringent measures alert the public that there’s an emergency.

The UK government is referencing the idea that “fatigue” will set in and the public will disregard social distancing measures when the pandemic is at its height if they don’t time measures such as school closures conservatively.

We were citing “fatigue” ourselves just over a week ago. 

The truth is we don’t know when and if such “fatigue” might set in because we have never experienced a pandemic such as this in living memory.

That’s what more than 600 behavioural psychologists said as they slammed the British government’s response to the pandemic in an open letter published last Friday:

We don’t know enough about so-called “behavioural fatigue”, particularly in these “exceptional circumstances”, they wrote, to base a “high risk” public health strategy on it.

Crucially, they noted, “It seems likely that even those essential behaviour changes that are presently required will receive far greater uptake the more urgent the situation is perceived to be. 

"Carrying on as normal for as long as possible undercuts that urgency.”

The pictures of St Patrick’s Day in Liverpool clearly illustrate the truth of that statement.

The distance between our less-than-perfect but far more urgent response to Covid-19 and that of the UK will interest future historians. Right now, it is just scary.

We are multiply connected to the UK by a heavy schedule of flights and ferry sailings which are still running. And it gets worse — we have a land border with the UK.

We have spent the last three years campaigning against a “hard border” with Northern Ireland but in the context of Covid-19, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Not only are pubs and bars still trading in the North, schools are still open. 

It is mind-blowing that a Derry primary school has been denied the right to close for two days when a pupil developed possible Covid-19 symptoms.

The pupil can’t be tested because it is UK policy to test only those patients who come to hospital. All the others are left to sweat it out on their own.

Why are there such starkly different approaches on different sides of the island?

The argument is that there is differing advice from public health officials on this side of the border than there is in the UK.

Famously, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, has advised against attempting to suppress the transmission of the virus because it may “bounce back” when social distancing is relaxed.

As “herd immunity” to the virus develops, vulnerable members of the community are to be “cocooned”.

Vallance’s policy may be the right one. The problem is that nobody knows how “herd immunity” to this virus can be acquired. 

No one knows what percentage of the population would have to be immune or how long they would stay that way.

As the World Health Organisation commented, the UK strategy is based on an unproved theory; what we need now is action.

Speaking on RTÉ, Dr Kim Roberts, a virologist at Trinity College Dublin, explained that there may be competing public policy priorities in any response to a viral threat — slowing the transmission of the virus, softening its economic impact and lessening social disruption — and while these cards are usually shuffled “behind closed doors”, right now they are being shuffled in public.

The UK government is clearly more focussed on the economic impact and the social disruption than we are, and less focussed than we are on slowing the spread of the virus.

In the North, the DUP are being True Brits.

Educational Minister Peter Weir continues to reference the potential disruption to parents’ working schedules, rather than to their children’s education, if the schools are closed.

Personally, I find this outrageous. That’s not surprising because I identify — strongly — as Irish.

The Nationalist North, from Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin, to the SDLP to Sinn Féin, favours aggressive State action, such as school closures, to attempt to slow the spread of the virus despite the economic consequences.

The Unionist North prioritises the economy.

 Northern Ireland Assembly of Education Minister Peter Weir speaking at the Stormont education committee where he said that he cannot give a date yet for when schools in Northern Ireland will close over coronavirus.     Photo: PA
Northern Ireland Assembly of Education Minister Peter Weir speaking at the Stormont education committee where he said that he cannot give a date yet for when schools in Northern Ireland will close over coronavirus. Photo: PA

I believe this difference of emphasis has its roots in the UK’s political history.

It is, essentially, a “laissez-faire” approach, an expression most of us first encountered when we studied the British government’s response to the Great Irish Famine of 1845-48.

The Famine was caused by a plague too, though one experienced by vegetables, not humans.

The blight was no one’s fault, any more than is Covid 19, though clearly in both cases, peoples’ ability to cope was, and is, shaped by political and economic policies.

A ground-breaking work, Writing the Irish Famine, by Christopher Morash, who is now Seamus Heaney professor of Irish Writing at Trinity College Dublin but was in the late 1980s my student colleague as a humble post- graduate student, shows how Thomas Malthus’s On Population migrated from theory into public policy and entered "that realm of truth which masks its origins under the name of “ 'common sense'.”

In a memorable phrase, Morash calls Malthus the “ghost writer” of the contemporary British narrative on the Famine.

While Malthus was extreme in seeing Famine and plague as effective tools for limiting the population in the context of diminishing resources, the Famine era British treasury secretary, Charles Trevelyan, merely insisted that there should be, “as little disturbance as possible to the ordinary course of private trade.”

This is a statement which could come, in the context of Covid 19, from Boris Johnson, from Donald Trump, or Arlene Foster.

Charles Darwin assimilated Malthusian theories into his theory of natural selection, by which the species is strengthened by the deaths of the weak.

No one is suggesting Boris Johnson had this in mind when he announced that “herd immunity” would be pursued and that the British public should prepare to “lose loved ones before their time.”

However, I am suggesting that the political culture into which he was born allowed him to articulate that policy.

While the UK Government’s policy response may turn out to be just as effective as ours in protecting its society from the virus, our political culture would not allow us to pursue it.

Our political culture, like that of most European countries, insists we attempt to slow the transmission of the virus and protect the weakest first, no matter what the economic cost is.

That won’t stop the recriminations when the crisis is over and we survey the smoking ruins of our economy.

The fact is, however, that our political culture will not allow, today, of a different response.

And while we do not yet know, and may never know, if our strategy is more effective than theirs, I know which country I’d prefer to be living in right now.

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