Brendan Hughes: Mixed messages from the Northern Ireland executive on Covid-19 – Brendan Hughes


Comedian Matt Lucas memorably mimicked Boris Johnson’s often confusing messages about Covid-19 in an opening sketch for the Great British Bake Off TV show.

Dressed like the Prime Minister with his tousled blonde hair in a press conference mockup in Downing Street, Lucas announced, “We are now approaching phase 46.

“We are, we are, we say, as far as cooking is concerned, if you have to cook in a tent, cook in a tent – but please don’t cook in a tent.”

The parody unfortunately comes to mind when one thinks of Stormont’s executive’s recent approach to the pandemic.

People are advised to work from home where you can, but employers can plan for a gradual return to the office.

Instead of shopping online, we are welcome to walk down Main Street to redeem our £ 100 Spend Local vouchers before the extended deadline of mid-December.

The spread of the virus is so severe that less than three weeks ago, the executive removed a social distancing requirement from pubs and reopened nightclubs.

During the slow roll-out of the booster jab, people were originally encouraged to wait to be contacted by their GP – but are now told to book with local pharmacies.

Terry Maguire of the Ulster Chemists’ Association told the BBC: “There is kind of a mixed message in the sense that people are kind of waiting for an invitation to come in for a reminder, when very often it is not. not and they should be going out and maybe proactively trying to get it. “

Stormont’s public messaging on Covid is a mess.

Statistics are released, usually in large numbers to give the impression of action and progress – but little to better inform the public.

In this soup of numbers, key metrics that should be regularly reported and updated – such as the percentage of the population double and triple vaccinated – are extremely difficult to locate.

The same goes for the disproportionate number of unvaccinated people hospitalized with Covid – an important statistic that would help underline the importance of vaccination.

Some 70% of adult Covid patients in Northern Ireland hospitals under the age of 50 are unvaccinated, the Department of Health said on Wednesday following the release of an analysis.

This kind of data should be more regularly available – and central to campaigns to increase vaccination rates.

While Irish government health officials conduct regular briefings, the Stormont executive has not held a live press conference on the coronavirus since September 22. The most recent occasion before that date was April 14.

Rather than coordinated messages, executive information is leaked to preferred media, adding hearsay and speculation to the hubbub.

When the executive’s official line on any plan or measure is finally made public, there are usually many follow-up questions, but no one is available at that time to answer them.

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The consequences of this haphazard approach are quite visible to people, with low adherence to mask wear, hand sanitization, and social distancing.

Health Minister Robin Swann’s useful shield against further public scrutiny of his department is the DUP.

The party’s inconsistency in the face of the pandemic is systematically an unintentional distraction.

The DUP was the only executive party this week to oppose the introduction of mandatory passes for the Covid vaccine, redirecting attention from delays to the plan.

While DUP MP Paul Frew called national passports “discriminatory”, party health spokeswoman Pam Cameron said his was “good to go for some time now”.

However, opposition from DUP ministers did not get them to deploy a cross-community veto – a move that sparked backlash last year when they used it to block restrictions.

Ambulances hijacked from Craigavon ​​Regional Hospital for two periods within 24 hours this week should be a wake-up call to the pressures facing Northern Ireland’s ailing healthcare system.

But if ministers want the public to take heed, a much clearer and more coherent communications strategy is desperately needed.


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