By Lisa Smyth
The first case of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland was diagnosed on February 27.
Just a few days later, journalists were invited to Antrim Area Hospital to view a drive-through coronavirus testing unit.
However, what started out as a simple tour and an opportunity to meet some of the testing staff turned into a stand-out moment in what has become a year like no other.
Dr Seamus O’Reilly, medical director of the Northern Trust, was present at the media briefing and spoke about the state of play as the health service braced itself for the onslaught of SARS-CoV-2.
Images of dying Covid-19 patients lining hospital corridors in Italy had already highlighted the brutality of the virus – but it was still difficult to grasp that this could happen here too.
Yet Dr O’Reilly was clear that capacity could become an issue in Northern Ireland.
Asked whether there would be adequate intensive care beds to cope with a surge in people becoming critically ill, he said: “We can’t give that assurance.
“We are preparing for the worst-case scenario and hopefully we will never get to that stage, but it may mean doctors having to prioritise which patients get an ICU bed.”
The conversation was significant for a number of reasons – to begin with, it was the first time someone in such a senior position in the health service in Northern Ireland had acknowledged the scale of the threat ahead.
Secondly, high level officials tend to downplay concerns when speaking publicly, so, in that moment, my understanding of the pandemic and what it was likely to mean, changed dramatically.
Just a few weeks later, the first Covid-19 related death was recorded, while Health Minister Robin Swann warned Northern Ireland was facing the possibility of a surge of biblical proportions.
At the same time, the government announced a series of measures that would have been unfathomable a few months before.
Schools closed, the economy came to a virtual standstill, patients died without their loved ones to comfort them in their final moments, even visits to cemeteries and hugs were banned, all in a bid to stop the spread of Covid-19.
But it was too late – the virus had already taken hold.
Almost one year on, Northern Ireland is now coming through a third deadly wave of Covid-19.
Although the worst-case scenario of 15,000 deaths forecast by Mr Swann has not happened, Covid-19 has been mentioned on 2,691 death certificates, while the impact on people fighting other medical conditions can only be imagined.
So, 12 months on, what was going on behind the scenes to prompt Dr O’Reilly’s comments in March last year and what is his assessment of the pandemic to date?
“I don’t think there was one moment where I realised just how serious the situation was, it was more of a series of moments,” he said.
“We saw that China had built hospitals in a week to deal with Covid, which was a particularly scary and virulent virus.
“I think it would be wrong of me not to say we had many sleepless nights and I know we were sitting in meetings asking how many of us would still be here in a year’s time.
“There really were high levels of anxiety in our medical and nursing staff. These are people who understand the science and the fear was palpable among all of us in those early days.
“We had already heard about healthcare workers who had died in other countries as a result of Covid so there was a real worry we were going to lose colleagues.
“We had also been looking very closely at what was happening in Italy at the time.
“The evidence was that their intensive care units were getting overrun at that stage.
“I suppose we looked at that and felt, ‘my goodness, Italy has got a fairly modern health service, they aren’t a third world country’, they had a high-tech health service and they were struggling.
“We were also getting a personal viewpoint from one of our consultants who had a friend who had gone into intensive care in Italy and we were hearing quite harrowing stories coming back about how they were struggling to keep up with the numbers and the sheer volume of patients.
“We had no idea how we would cope with the numbers of patients that might require critical care.
“We were planning for vast numbers of intensive care beds, we were talking about rows and rows of intensive care beds.
“We looked at the Maze to see if that would be suitable. Obviously setting up beds is relatively easy but providing things like oxygen and electricity and staffing of the beds was the real challenge.
“At that stage, a shortage of ventilators was also a big worry and we were having conversations over what would happen if we were totally overrun and how we would decide who gets care.
“I’m 30-odd years in medicine and this wasn’t anything I ever thought I would witness, that we might have to decide between one person and another getting a ventilator.
“As a doctor and a healthcare professional, you never want to have to consider having to make a decision between two people getting care.
“People should have treatment no matter where or when so these would be ethical and moral decisions that none of us want to make.”
Dr O’Reilly stressed that, thanks to the restrictions put in place by the Executive and the efforts of health service employees, Northern Ireland has managed to avoid rationing critical care services.
That’s not to say, however, that the system has not come under immense pressure.
During the most recent wave, more than 1,000 cancer operations have been cancelled, while staff at one point, staff at Antrim Area Hospital had to treat patients in the back of ambulances due to a shortage of hospital beds.
Dr O’Reilly continued: “We’ve never got to the stage where we felt we were going to run out of critical care beds and I never got to the point where I felt like we were doomed.
“But that’s my personality, I’m a glass half-full person and I think that’s important because I think the staff needed to feel like we were in control and that we had a plan.
“But the night where there was a delay in patients being admitted to Antrim was probably the moment where I asked what we were doing.
“Thankfully, it was short-lived but for the patients in the back of those ambulances, it must have been a very harrowing experience, they were frail and vulnerable people sitting outside and it wasn’t right.
“It was something that we had never seen before and I hope we never see it again.”
With ever-improving treatments for Covid-19 and as the vaccination programme gathers pace and positive cases continue to decline, attention is turning to rebuilding the health service.
However, according to Dr O’Reilly, the possibility of another crippling wave looms large: “We wonder will the next surge come and how we will keep the staff going and resilience in the system.”
This is perhaps the most significant challenge now facing a broken and battered health service.
Health bosses must now come up with a plan to help the hundreds of thousands of people languishing on waiting lists and also create an effective service to care for the countless numbers now suffering from long Covid.
And this must all be done with a workforce exhausted and traumatised by the past 12 months.
“Staff are tired, they have been on high alert for the length of the pandemic,” continued Dr O’Reilly.
“I think we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg in relation to some of the psychological impact that Covid has had on staff.
“I’ve heard some harrowing stories of staff bursting into tears, of not wanting to come to work but knowing they need to give care to patients.
“More and more staff are fretful, there is a fear of what might come in the future.
“I don’t know how we give staff breathing space, we’re looking at waiting lists and we know cancer patients have come to harm, so there is a balance of how we address that while giving our staff the time they need to recover.
“We, as leaders in the organisation, need to ensure we have appropriate support around staff - our greatest asset is not our hospitals, it is our staff.
“I would like to think we have seen the worst of the pandemic now, with the vaccinations, the knowledge and treatments we have, I hope we have seen the worst.
“But I do worry that if we aren’t careful about how we lift the restrictions, particularly with occasions like Easter coming up, that we could see another wave.
“The decisions around this are for the scientists and the officials in the department, but we have to get this right.
“We really have been through the worst with the pandemic, but it has also brought out the best and I would say that the high point for me is how the service has worked together to provide our patients with exceptional care.”
THE FIRST CASE
By Ralph Hewitt
Health Minister Robin Swann will never forget the additional mortuaries that were put in place in preparation for the potential destruction Covid-19 could have brought to Northern Ireland in the early days of the pandemic.
After taking on one of the most notoriously difficult roles within the Executive in January 2020, Mr Swann said his main priorities at that time were dealing with health workers on the picket lines and the severe waiting lists.
Less than one month later, the relatively unknown coronavirus was sweeping across Europe and making its way to our shores.
In late 2019, reports emerged from the Wuhan province of China that people were dying from a mysterious respiratory disease and just weeks later, Northern Ireland had entered into a full lockdown.
Mr Swann admitted that no one expected Covid to be so damaging when he looked back to last January.
“I don’t think a lot of the health services in the western world were expecting it to be as severe as it was or as long-term as it is,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
Mr Swann came in for stinging criticism after he said 15,000 people could have died from the virus in Northern Ireland if nothing had been done to stop the spread of Covid.
Last week, our death toll reached 2,000, based on figures from his department. Separate figures from statistics agency Nisra put the toll at 2,673 as of February 12.
Mr Swann’s comments came after the first Covid-19 related death was reported here on March 19, and looking back,
Mr Swann said he based the figures on an early COBRA briefing.
The UK’s political leaders were told that if the virus remained unchecked, there would have been an 80% infection rate and a 1% death rate.
“It worked out at 15,000 people and I showed it to the rest of my Executive colleagues,” reflected Mr Swann. “In regards to the steps we actually took afterwards, we established additional mortuaries because this is where that could potentially have gone at that time if we hadn’t taken the steps that we did.”
The first confirmed Covid-19 case in Northern Ireland emerged on February 27.
A Co Down resident had flown into Dublin Airport after returning from a skiing holiday in Italy — where the virus was doing untold damage — before travelling into Northern Ireland on the Enterprise train service.
The Department of Health quickly scrambled as it tried to trace and isolate anyone who may have come into contact with the woman.
Mr Swann and the Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride were attending a drugs and alcohol summit in Scotland when the news came through.
The Health Minister explained he was just about to give his address before Dr McBride got up and left their table after receiving a phone call.
It was then that Mr Swann knew that Northern Ireland had its first Covid-19 case but said it was already known that it was a matter of when and not if.
“We never expected the numbers to escalate to what we’ve seen,” he said.
Mr Swann added: “For that first case, and this has been well documented now, they arrived into Dublin and travelled up but what we saw was the integration of our public health systems both here in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland really coming together.
“There was a reassurance at that point that our systems worked and then as the scale of the situation increased, that
intervention still maintains today.”
Mr Swann admitted that reporting the daily death figures during his weekly press briefings is still just as challenging as it was when he told the public that the first person had passed away on March 19. “These are people and these are families who have lost loved ones due to this virus,” he stated.
Thanking the public for their incredible response to the virus over the last year, the Health Minister said that if it wasn’t for that united effort, our health service would have collapsed.
“What we have done over this period of time is with the thanks and the support of the people of Northern Ireland,” he continued.
“The hope is that we can take those proportionate steps and the people of Northern Ireland will understand why we do them, and they also understand that there is hope at the end of this.”
Highlighting Northern Ireland’s successful vaccine programme, Mr Swann said it is the “envy of many countries in the world” because of the number of jabs being administered to older age groups and those classed as extremely vulnerable.
“We’re now rolling it out across different cohorts as well,” he stated.
“We’ve a vaccine programme that will bring us hope and opportunity later in the year, but again as we come out of these restrictions, I don’t think we should waste [our efforts] that it will potentially bring in a number of weeks and months.”
By Margaret Canning
Our economy and businesses have had an extremely rough ride since the first Covid-19 case was detected here on February 27 last year.
None of us could have imagined how our lives as individuals, consumers, employees and businesspeople would be affected.
And almost every single trend which has reshaped our lives in the past year — working from home, streaming movies instead of going to the cinema, being furloughed, doing more online shopping because so many shops are shut — is feeding into the long-term economic impact of Covid-19.
While we are encouraged by the vaccine roll-out, and cherishing the hope the present lockdown might be the last, it is dawning on us that things will never be the same again for working lives and business.
It has been estimated that our economy slumped by around 12% during the year due to Covid and the lockdowns introduced to cope with it, suffering more acutely than the UK as a whole with its still catastrophic 9.9% year-on-year fall in GDP.
During 2020, a record 11,000 redundancies were proposed here, and the claimant count of unemployed doubled between March and May to hit 65,200.
No sector of business escaped the effects of Covid-19 though, for some, the impact was harsher.
Some lucky and rare examples even managed to turn it to their advantage — but usually only where their core activity had been curtailed.
For example, Huhtamaki Delta in west Belfast joined up with Bloc Blinds in Magherafelt to make face shields. It had been hit by a downturn in demand for the packaging it makes for fast-food customers like McDonald’s which had been forced in shut.
And in Strabane, GAA kit company O’Neills turned its hand to making scrubs and facemasks.
But not everyone has been in a position to pivot with grace — or even pivot at all.
Shops other than food stores, restaurants, cafes and bars have been unable to carry out full business for most of the year since the first lockdown announced in a chillingly memorable press conference by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on March 23.
Pubs which serve drink but not food have barely been able to open at all since March. Even a landmark business like the Duke of York complex in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter decided it simply was not worth reopening again during the interlude in September and October when drink-only pubs were allowed to open.
We had already been feeling the effects of a coronavirus economic panic even before March 23.
The day Northern Ireland detected its first coronavirus case was also the day my first stories about the impact on business here were published.
Phillip Burns, a business development manager at Hamilton Shipping in Clarendon Dock in Belfast, related how its deliveries from China were being held up by lockdowns in China.
He said he has worked in shipping for 20 years but the coronavirus had had the worst impact of any public health crisis.
That same day, I reported on Rooney Fish in Kilkeel and how its usual orders from China for its oysters and crabs and been lost. Orders from France, Italy and Spain were also drying up as those countries, too, battled the virus.
Those stories marked the start of an unravelling of everyday life for business.
Many office-based companies decided to move to remote working to minimise the risk of workplace infection and employee illness. Some businesses brought staff back in late summer/early autumn but such returns were short-lived after infections started to rise again.
For the majority of firms, the experiment in home working has paid off with workforces adapting to new ways of working with software like Microsoft Teams and Zoom.
That has come at a huge cost, however, to the businesses like cafes, shops and pubs which depend on office workers popping in and out for trade. Of course, many have not been able to open for much of the year anyway — but even from July to October when they were allowed to open, office workers were still at home.
Many companies are still going to stick with hybrid working in future — one scenario is two days at home and three days in the office.
That is going to mean less money being spent in town and city centres, with a continued chill effect on all of those businesses which depend on office workers.
Office space requirements will shrink — though there are still many big firms, like the accountancy firm PwC, which is going ahead with moves to extensive new offices.
But other older office buildings which have outlived their purpose will be left vacant.
And if working from home took a bit of getting used to — what about not working at all but still getting paid most of your salary?
Much of the last year has meant something close to that for hundreds of thousands of people after the Chancellor Rishi Sunak launched the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which first opened to companies in April last year.
That scheme involves the government paying 80% of the wages of someone who has not able to work because lockdown has shut down their place of work, or affected its activity.
At its height, the scheme was supporting nearly a quarter of a million jobs in Northern Ireland.
That fell steadily after the gradual reopening of the economy after July, to around 64,000 — before shooting right back up again to reach 95,000 after new restrictions from October onwards.
And it is far from the only form of business support over the last year.
A breakdown of the government help available runs to eight pages on nibusinessinfo.co.uk
Small businesses received £10,000 in grants, retail and hospitality businesses got £25,000, and firms have also had a break from the payment of rates, and deferrals for payment of Vat and other charges.
There have also been government-backed loans for business of all sizes, and special grants to cope with the restrictions in place from October, and the full lockdown we have had since December 26.
Without that government help, we would all be much worse off — and in the long term it will all have to be paid for, probably with higher taxes.
But the one area of the economy which pulled through with vigour is the housing market. Being forced to spend so much time at home working, home-schooling or watching TV — with all other forms of entertainment cut off — has led to many people prioritising having a better roof over their heads than before.
That has resulted in a 5.3% increase in the average house price over the year to £147,593.
And at 7,401 sales, the last few months of 2020 marked the busiest quarter for house sales since the housing boom of 2007.
It is certainly not what we expected at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — but its unpredictability is the very thing which sets this economic crisis apart from any other.
NORTHERN IRELAND’S ECONOMIC DATA
The data shows the contrast between the economic mood in March - before the first UK lockdown was announced on the 23rd of the month - and later months.
The NI housing market was closed for most of the second quarter of the year though as we can see, sales did bounce back afterwards.
Falling car sales reflect not just a lack of consumer confidence as people worried about their income and businesses during lockdowns but also the closure of car showrooms to walk-in sales.
We have also included figures for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS), which opened in April 20 and May 13 respectively.
By Mark Bain
Education is all about learning.
Not just English and maths, science or history. From primary one through to final year at university, it’s about learning life skills too. Forming social bonds. Feeling valued. Finding the right path through life, wherever those futures may lead.
But there’s one major thing we’ve definitely been taught all over again, even if we all knew it before.
Prior to Covid there had been little investment in those futures.
Instead of nourishment, there were decades of underinvestment in education. Head teachers were revealing that parents had been donating toilet rolls, pens and pencils. Fewer, more stressed teachers, bigger classes, children slipping through the net.
Northern Ireland students have always punched above their weight when it comes to academic achievement.
It’s hard to keep the punches flowing when hands are tied behind backs.
Just imagine how good things might be if there had been decades of investment in the education system rather than decades of cutbacks, teacher shortages, schools running into disrepair and an IT system years behind its time.
That schools have still managed to produce wonderful success rates for pupils across all walks of life is an achievement in itself. But the creaks in the system have been ravaged by Covid.
Seven months, going on eight, of remote learning for most pupils is a long time in the life of a pupil. Every school year sees a crucial development, both academically, but also socially. Children make friends for life, form social bonds, develop as people, not just as academics.
To have taken that away from them, through no fault of their own, has left many feeling isolated, struggling. Add to that the digital divide between the have and the have nots and the concerns over home schooling, the chaos over A-level grades last August, university life disrupted, the late decisions from the Department of Education, the on, off, on, off confusion over transfer tests, the further cancellation of this summer’s exams and there’s an awful lot to recover from.
And remember, education was at a pretty low point to begin with when Covid struck this time last year.
As president of the National Union of Head Teachers, Dr Graham Gault was there are the start of Covid. He's still standing now, despite the buffeting, the twists and turns, the late decisions, the pressure being put on schools.
“Back in March 2020 our school leaders, on the arrival of Covid, were just coming out of a period of industrial disagreement over issues on the excessive, unreasonable, relentless workload,” he said.
“When Covid arrived it was extremely difficult for everybody. Everything was fast moving, a very, very complicated time.”
“It’s really important to know that all of the support services for our schools, social services, behavioural support, family respite, even the Education Authority’s support services all disappeared, understandably, overnight.”
“It was our school principals who were left there trying to manage circumstances for children of our key workers and online learning at home with varying degrees of capacity in terms of resourcing, support for vulnerable and disadvantaged children having disappeared.”
“Then we managed to crawl our way through to summertime. We dealt with all of the changing guidance issues. Was it going to be full classes, half classes, how was social distancing going to be managed? We were trying to get ourselves resourced with PPE and all of the rest.”
“It was very difficult. There was no breathing space for school principals at all.”
“And then September arrived and schools restart. It’s very complex running a school at the best of times, but currently it’s extremely demanding.”
“The issue of contact tracing was dropped on school leaders without any negotiation, without any workload assessment and school leaders have actually been amazing. They’ve stepped up to this and the PHA themselves recognise how effective school leaders have been in contact tracing. But the workload has been immense.”
“It takes evenings, it takes weekends and our school principals have not yet had any respite.”
“With the burdens that have been placed on school principals and vice-principals, the series of last-minute U-turns and last-minute changes we’ve had to deal with, school leaders can surely be forgiven thinking to themselves ‘what next?’”
“There is a threshold of what we can actually carry and our school principals have simply at the end of what they can deliver.”
“Our school principals are trying to deliver for our children. We could really do with the Department for Education coming in behind us, championing us, cheerleading what we’re doing in the same way that Robin Swann is for health care workers and medical practitioners. Our department could do the same.”
“Peter Weir has an extremely difficult job, but he’s not on his own. He has a department around him, All I’m saying is that the Department has, throughout this pandemic, consulted poorly with people like the NAHT who represent the people who are working in schools. We represent their interests and we’re very concerned about their health and welfare.”
Which way it needs to be is going to be the big question.
As things stand, a tentative move back into classrooms begins on March 8 with P1 to P3 pupils. They step out again on March 22 to allow Years 12-14, the critical exam year pupils, to come back for one week before the Easter break. The minister, and first minister would like things to move more quickly.
What happens after that is in the hands of Covid.
But academics have already warned that there needs to be a major overhaul of how education is run in Northern Ireland.
At Ulster University’s Unesco Education Centre, they’ve called for a complete reform of the education system after a new report concluded that the current system is “unsustainable”.
In a comprehensive paper looking at how education is run, the report said the influence of the church and politics had created a confused, bloated and ultimately costly system that is no longer fit for purpose without ambitious and radical reform.
The report said the system has been left “divided, splintered and overly expensive” and as a result has become “confusing and socially divisive” and it will be running in the ears of a Department of Education which, in trying to streamline the education system over the past 20 years, has managed to build a complex, bloated and ultimately highly expensive system which tries to keep all parts of society in control of their own interests, but which isn’t actually in the interests of those who matter most, the children.
Change, though, is promised.
A spokesperson for the department said: “The forthcoming Independent Review of Education is expected to consider a range of issues with a focus on improving the effectiveness, efficiency and quality of our education system. The terms of reference for the review explains that it will include consideration of system level design, delivery and administration.”
But what of the pupils themselves?
University students are working online at their courses, shorn of all the traditional social trappings university life should bring.
At school they’ve put up with exams being on, then off, then on, then off again. It’s the same for those in P7 with transfer tests.
Issues over online access to home schooling, month after month of missing out on the social interaction with friends, health worries over family members. The list goes on.
It’s all added to the already skyrocketing number of pupils struggling with mental health issues.
The make-up of the NI Youth Forum itself shows what they have been facing. The organisation has been running since 1979, but the current members have never had a face-to-face meeting.
Oisin-Tomas o Raghallaigh is the vice chairperson and is part of the NIYF sub-committee looking at the effects of Covid-19 on young people.
The committee carried out research that received almost 4,000 responses from young people across Northern Ireland and found 75% of young people felt their mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic and 55% said they did not understand the restrictions.
Some 89% felt that the voice of young people has not been heard during the pandemic.
Mr O Raghallaigh said that the most important issues raised by young people related to the pandemic were mental health, education, isolation and loneliness, and boredom.
“Young people said they were anxious, annoyed and frustrated”, he said.
A healthy education system would go a long way to relieving that boredom and isolation being felt.
Stormont’s Executive Committee chair Colin McGrath MLA said the politicians must now listen to the voices of young people.
“When we hear terms like anxious and annoyed and frustrated as being the key words that young people are feeling. If that isn’t a call to action by an executive and political representatives then I don’t know what we are here to do,” he said.
We’ve been here before. Education can’t afford to have to go back again in a few years’ time.
By Suzanne Breen
Nobody under-estimated the challenges facing Stormont ministers when they took office in January 2020.
A health service with the worst waiting lists in the UK; the poorest performing economy in these islands; key infrastructure projects lingering in limbo . . . and then along came Covid.
It’s been a baptism of fire for the Executive. If seasoned, stable governments struggled during the pandemic, our five-party one can hardly be expected to have handled it perfectly.
Yet, unfortunately, Stormont has failed to meet even the lowest expectations.
The individual performance of ministers varies from the professional to the pitiful but, collectively, it’s not an over-exaggeration to say that the Executive’s response to coronavirus has too often been shambolic.
The blame doesn’t lie with the smaller parties around the table.
It’s the dysfunctionality at the heart of the DUP-Sinn Fein relationship that has proved poisonous during the pandemic.
The new administration started on a wave of optimism on January, 11 2020 – a blissfully naive day before social distancing, the R rate, and furlough had even entered out vocabulary.
At the first meeting of the Assembly, Arlene Foster told MLAs: “We have many differences. Michelle’s narrative of the past 40 years could not be more different to mine.
“I’m not sure we will ever agree on much about the past, but we can agree there was too much suffering, and we cannot allow society to drift backwards and division to grow.
“It’s time for Stormont to move forward and show that ‘together we are stronger’ for the benefit of everyone.”
Michelle O’Neill said: “After three years without functioning institutions with the five parties forming the new Executive, it is my hope that we do so united in our determination to deliver a stable power-sharing coalition that works on the basis of openness, transparency and accountability, and in good faith and with no surprises.”
It has hardly gone as promised.
Both women’s parties have fallen well short of these aspirations in their response to Covid. Closing schools was the first issue on which they clashed.
On March 12, the Executive collectively decided that educational establishments would remain open despite the Republic shutting theirs. O’Neill said they were “guided by the science”.
Less than 24 hours later came Sinn Fein’s u-turn.
“Now is the time to take action and ensure schools, universities and colleges are closed, and that needs to happen immediately,” O’Neill said.
It was a response to the feeling on the ground - especially in the nationalist community – with parents keeping their children home.
Foster continued to back the UK-wide strategy to keep schools open. Sinn Fein’s solo run was lambasted by Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken. “They are playing party politics with health, and that is utterly reprehensible,” he said.
Next came a major row over PPE.
On March 27, Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy announced that a “very significant order” from China had been placed with the Irish government. Just a week later, he was forced to confirm that the order wasn’t completed, and the plan had failed when “major economic powers entered the global race”.
On April 2, O’Neill declined to express confidence in Health Minister Robin Swann when quizzed on BBC’s The View programme.
Nine days later, she criticised him over his “failure to consult minister colleagues” about his decision to ask the British Army to help distribute life-saving equipment and plan for a Nightingale hospital at the site of the former Maze prison.
The deputy first minister said the Executive should have been informed of any such request before it was made. Foster strongly backed the health minister.
"When your loved one is lying in hospital, who built the ward will be the last thought on their mind,” she said.
Four days later, O’Neill said she would “not stand in the way” of the British Army’s deployment in the fight against coronavirus.
By May, the rows had fizzled out and the Executive bedded down.
The DUP and Sinn Fein appeared to realise that the public wasn’t impressed by continual squabbling and it was in both their interests it stopped.
On May 24, the first and deputy first ministers gave a joint interview to Sky News.
“I'm not saying it's a good thing we've had a global pandemic but I think it shows that we have come together and that we can work together in the way that we have,” Foster said.
"Michelle and I come from completely different political backgrounds, we have different political philosophies but there are things that we share in common. We will differ from time to time. Michelle has used the phrase 'to differ but to differ well' and I think that is the key.”
O’Neill also said that Covid had brought them closer together. She revealed that they had shared worries about their mothers who had both been admitted to hospital during the pandemic.
Both women joked that they were spending so much time together they could form their own social bubble. It wasn’t quite the ‘Chuckle Sisters’ - the natural warmth and rapport that characterised the Paisley/McGuinness relationship was missing – but it was a clear attempt to move forward.
Bobby Storey’s funeral blew those efforts asunder. Sinn Fein’s uncompromising approach to fighting Covid-19 went out the window.
It was proven to be very much a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ with public health guidelines breached,
The presence of O’Neill and Sinn Fein ministers at a funeral attended by thousands – when outdoor gatherings of more than 30 weren’t permitted – caused fury across Northern Ireland.
It gravely undermined the authority of the deputy first minister and her party on coronavirus.
Her refusal to admit that she broke the regulations continues to enrage unionists.
Two days after the funeral, Foster called on O’Neill to step aside pending PSNI and Assembly standards investigations. When she refused to do so, the first minister ended their joint press conferences. These eventually resumed in September, but relations between the two parties took another downwards turn the following month.
Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots suggested that nationalist areas had significantly higher coronavirus infection rates than unionist areas, and that the Storey funeral was the cause of the differential. His remarks sparked widespread anger and were quickly shot down by the Department of Health.
“For the record, data on Covid infections is not collected according to religious or political affiliation,” a spokesman said.
In November, Swann’s proposal for a two-week extension of coronavirus restrictions was defeated in the Executive after the DUP employed the cross-community veto. Alliance Justice Minister Naomi Long described it as a “perversion” which had left her “upset, distressed and ashamed”.
She revealed that she had been reconsidering her position in the Executive, and she warned ministerial colleagues that it would become unsustainable for her to stay if the veto was employed in that way again.
There is currently a DUP-Sinn Fein ceasefire on Covid, but rest assured it’s only temporary. Disagreements over the pace of reopening the economy are inevitable, perhaps particularly in regards to hospitality.
The vaccine roll-out has been highly successful, and there is a widespread desire in Northern Ireland to get back to normal as soon as possible. But if a new variant of the virus develops that is resistant to existing vaccines, major tensions will again open up over lockdown restrictions.
With an Assembly election scheduled for May 2022, the parties will be going into campaigning mode early this summer. With opinion polls suggesting Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party – making O’Neill first minister - and Irish Sea border tensions thrown into the mix, it will be the mother of all election battles.
This will not involve “differing well”.
The uneasy peace between Stormont’s big two should be enjoyed while it lasts.
Since March 19, 2020, Northern Ireland has recorded over 2,000 deaths with more than 110,000 people testing positive
LOVED ONES SADLY GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN
By Ralph Hewitt
Over 2,000 people have died after contracting Covid-19 in Northern Ireland in just 12 months - but behind each number is a loved one being mourned by their friends and families.
Health Minister Robin Swann has said reading the daily death figure is still the hardest thing he has to do each and every day.
“These are people and these are families who have lost loved ones due to this virus,” he said.
The Department of Health’s figures reached the 2,000 mark earlier this month.
It was November 6 when 1,000 deaths were recorded after the first fatality on March 19 - a shocking rise of people losing their lives in just 109 days.
Whatever way you look at, these numbers are simply too high for a country the size of Northern Ireland.
The majority of families who lost loved ones to the virus understandably decided to keep their mourning private, but for many, sharing their stories with the public has been part of their own grieving process.
Joan Fulton from Newtownards was the first person to speak out after the death of her brother, Billy Alan, on March 24.
“This virus is ripping families apart,” Joan said.
“When my brother left his house on Friday night we thought he had a chest infection and he went into hospital. Our family didn't know that we wouldn't be seeing Billy again. That number had a face and it's the face of my brother. My brother Billy is ‘person number three’ who lost his life to this virus.”
Just one day later, and we learned of the first female victim of Covid - 82-year-old mother-of-five Ruth Burke.
Her daughter Brenda Doherty heartbreakingly described the pitiful farewell here family were able to afford her in Antrim Area Hospital.
“All we've been able to do as a family is talk on the phone and text each other,” she said. “There have been no hugs, no moments of togetherness, which every family needs when someone so loved is lost.”
On March 25, Magdalene Mitchell (80) became the first known victim of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland who contracted the virus in a care home. She was a resident in Bradley Manor on Belfast's Crumlin Road.
The same day Linda Wilson (64) was the seventh person to die and passed away not knowing that her brother Graham Campbell had succumbed to a heart attack days earlier.
Then Anne Best from Derrylin (72). Her husband Tom was told to self-isolate and was effectively banned from attending his wife's funeral. They had been married for 51 years.
Christopher Vallely (79) and his wife Isobel (77) from Belfast died on Saturday, March 28 within hours of each other in the same room at the Mater Hospital in Belfast.
On April 9, Belfast man Vincent Macklin (55) died from Covid-19 after he was deemed not fit for a ventilator due to a physical disability. His family said they “will never understand why his life was worth less than that of another”.
Former Newry district master of the Royal Black Institution David Andrews (67) passed away on April 23, following a four-week battle with Covid.
Just two days later, Tony Mitchell (70), from Armagh passed away at Craigavon Area Hospital after he tested positive for the virus on April 2.
“We begged and begged to be at his side but obviously with the government restrictions we couldn't see him,” his daughter Maureen said. “The nurses were unbelievable and they're just absolute angels. They were just so good.”
As the second and third waves of Covid took hold, the stories just kept coming.
Dr Alan Cairns (80), a former minister for the Free Presbyterian Church in Ballymoney, died in Causeway Hospital on November 5.
“He was just someone that if you ever needed advice you could go to,” said North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey. “He was a friend, he was a supporter and someone who genuinely loved his calling.”
Alan Henry from Ballymena became one of the first people to pass away in 2021.
The father-of-three died at Antrim Area Hospital on January 6, after he was admitted to the intensive care unit.
It came just days after his wife, Noeleen, who was working as a nurse in the ICU where her husband died, shared an emotional plea to take the virus seriously.
Noeleen said that after reading social media posts in which people complained about the effect of lockdowns, she asked “are these excuses really worth a life?”
Perhaps most heartbreakingly of all, Greysteel couple Barney and Sarah (Blossom) McGlinchy died holding hands in the intensive care unit at Altnagelvin Hospital on January 20.
The couple, who had been married for 55 years, died within six minutes of each other.
Each Covid-19 related death isn't just a number - there’s a heartbreaking story behind each and every one.
THE FIRST CLAP FOR CARERS
THE LEXICON OF A PANDEMIC
By Mark Bain
You can imagine the boffins who compile dictionaries are having a busy old time updating for 2021.
Never before have the meanings and interpretations of so many words and phrases had to be re-written.
Seldom used words have become part of our everyday vocabulary, Phrases previously used in one context now have a different meaning when we utter them.
In what has been a year of change, it’s not just the way we live our lives that have been altered, it's the way we communicate our way through them too. Here’s ten for starters...
We can all remember the time when we went to the school disco. All the boys sat on one side of the room, all the girls on the other. That was social distancing, the fear of catching something from the female/male of the species. Sadly these days most of us at least, are trying to stay far enough away from everyone else as we queue in, or outside shops. It’s even got to the stage where we can get anxious if someone comes a little too close for comfort. No hugging of grandparents, families and friends staying apart. Loved ones isolated from society in care homes or worse, dying alone in hospitals. It’s hard not to hug someone who never needed a hug so much in their life. If only social distancing was as simple as a school disco.
FLATTEN THE CURVE
Last February we would only have been trying to flatten the curve caused by an overindulgent Christmas. Then there’s some who have spent the past year pretty much stuck in the house, off work, isolating, sitting around doing nothing other than watching TV and comfort eating. A diet, a bit of exercise, much needed by many to flatten those curves which have gradually appeared. Through Covid though, we were all pouring over graphs and statistics as the virus surged across the community, anxious to see if our diet of not shopping, not going out, working at home was flattening curves of a much different kind, halting the rising number of cases in our communities.
Sinking into the bath and letting them gather around your chin. Many a child will have pretended to have a beard of bubbles. They’re simple, they’re fun and we all chased them in the breeze at birthday parties as kids, or when we were older allowed them to pop the corks of champagne bottles at special celebrations. Now though we gather in our social bubbles to help stop Covid spreading. We wonder who we can see safely, who we can’t. We were allowed two people in a bubble, then six, maybe two households. Schools had bubbles, workplaces had bubbles. On Christmas Day bubbles were springing up everywhere, larger than ever. On Boxing Day those bubbles burst. Bubbles aren’t fun any more.
There has been an unprecedented use of the word unprecedented. So much so that it’s no longer unprecedented. Neither is the Covid pandemic. We’ve been living with it for a year. It begs the question how long does it take for something that’s unprecedented to be no longer unprecedented? Probably about eleven months ago. Now it’s only unprecedented if a political figure, public body or campaign group doesn’t use the word at all. Perhaps it’s a word the dictionary writers need to erase from the books? And let’s not get started about ‘new normal’.
Ask anyone a year ago what furlough was and chances are they might have hazarded a guess at some sort of hole dug in an Irish field. Maybe a body part of a horse? Possibly a distance of around 200 metres? Turns out it was a way of government financially supporting employees who could no longer carry out their jobs. The term originally referred to members of the armed forces or the ministry who had been granted a leave of absence. They would have asked for it though. Furlough in Covid speak was forced on most, though in many cases it turned out to be a life, and financial saver. The question remains though over how we’re all going to pay for it in the future, whether we benefited from it or not.
There was a whole lot of baking going on during the first lockdown. Banana bread became a favourite. Inspired by the time on everyone’s hands, aprons were plucked from hooks, the flour at the back of the cupboard got an airing and the pastry was being rolled out across kitchen worktops. But why stop with rolling out the cake mix? Pretty soon we were rolling out lockdown restrictions. Then we were rolling out financial packages to help business in distress. Now we’re rolling out the Covid vaccine. We can’t start anything anymore. It has to be rolled out with a flourish. It must be better that way. We’re still waiting for pubs to roll out their barrels though.
A year ago a key worker could well have been the man who locks up the school at the end of the day, opens the church hall for community meetings, cuts us a new one to have a spare in case we lock ourselves out of the house. When the first lockdown started we all found out just how important a contribution to society we all made. We scanned the government lists to find out just how much of a ‘key worker’ we really were. The medical profession was obviously at the front of the queue. Every Thursday night for several months, applause for their efforts rang out around towns and villages. But the role of so many took on a newly discovered significance. Teachers helping or children adapt to remote learning, postmen out in the community while others stayed at home, part-time shop staff who turned up every day to keep the grocery stores open, Perhaps we all realise we’re a ‘key worker’ in our own individual way. Perhaps society, and the companies who run big business, should remember that employees are the best resource they have at their disposal and look after them.
A beer garden on a typical Northern Ireland summer day, with rain lashing down as we nip in to wet the palate inside and avoid getting wet on the outside? No? There was a time when a pub was just that, a pub. Some served food, some served nibbles, some served drinks and chatted with friends. Who would have known the pub business would be so complicated? What it amounted to was those who were honest suffered as their doors were closed while those who bent the rules managed to find a way to stay open. And if there’s a wet pub, is there a dry pub? If a pub is dry, surely it’s not a pub at all? We can't have run out of beer... no-one’s been able to drink any!
Images are conjured up of sitting on the sofa on a winter Sunday evening as Sir David Attenborough takes us on another epic journey through the wonders of the world. Picture a herd of wildebeest, huddled together to ward off the threat of prowling lions. Safety in numbers, the herd strong as one, proving too much for the predator to take on. It’s no surprise that, as part of the life that inhabits this world, herd immunity cropped up when we were faced by a predatory virus. If, a year into this pandemic, enough people are vaccinated, there will be greater protection for the few, but we’re not there yet.
Hands up if you’re one of the select few who had been in a zoom meeting before Covid... (not many). Now, hands up if you’ve hastily arranged furniture to make sure everyone gets the best view of your house... hands up if you’ve been interrupted by a smaller member of the family, child, feline or canine... hands up if you’ve been talking away for five minutes only to realise you’re on mute... hands up if you’ve dressed your top half and sat there in jammy bottoms only to forget yourself and stand up... welcome to zoom, or Microsoft teams, online meetings, splendid bookcases and pristine kitchens. Strange, though, that while the world has, through technology, become a much smaller place, many have found themselves more isolated than ever.
PLEDGE OF 'BRIGHTER DAYS' ARE AHEAD
First and Deputy First Minister thank all for their efforts over the past year, saying community spirit has 'shone bright'.
THE OPPORTUNITIES OF CORONAVIRUS:
How can society reshape itself after 12 months indoors on mute?
By Claire McNeilly
COVID-19 will soon be over but the effects of the pandemic will not. Like it or loathe it, life has changed irrevocably for all of us.
We’ve all been social distancing, wearing face masks and using hand sanitiser for almost a year now. That’s all likely to continue for quite some time for the greater good.
At its most fundamental, coronavirus has given us the opportunity to examine our basic hygiene practices, which can’t be a bad thing. With sustained emphasis on washing our hands – the main conduit for a variety of germs – surely the days are gone forever of anyone using the loo without visiting the sink and soap afterwards?
Similarly, the concept of ‘not invading someone’s personal space’ will surely go unchallenged for evermore.
Gone too are the days of packed pubs and tables climbing on top of one another in restaurants.
New rules have required changes that could actually make the going out experience more enjoyable, and we now have the opportunity to demand that that remains the case going forward. No more overly busy bars or unpleasantly full eateries.
We’re often reminded that children are very resilient – but, in general, human beings are too. New models of business have emerged as part of the pandemic survival plan, as have new ways of working.
Many firms will be considering hybrid working regimes, whereby employees spend part of the week in the office and part working from home.
That provides us with an opportunity to revise our schedules so that we can make maximum use of the entirety of the time we have. It also gives us a chance to re-examine our work-life balance. Could we even see a four day week coming into force? Perhaps now is the time to start that conversation.
In the post-Covid world, there can be no doubting that technology will be at the forefront.
Oxygen, water, food, clothing and the internet will become the five basic necessities of a human being. Mobile phones, internet connection and computers will be an integral part of daily life. Zoom and Microsoft Teams – which have facilitated remote working apparently overnight - are here to stay.
Both employers and employees have an opportunity to acquire new skills to get through the working day. This could confer greater flexibility, raise worker well-being and productivity, and lower firms’ costs. We could see more gender-balanced career paths and fewer earnings inequalities.
Thanks to the pandemic, “parents have realised the value of schools and appreciated the hard work of teachers”, according to Malala Fund’s Lucia Fry.
“Governments have understood that the economy and society depends on education now and in the long term,” she told the BBC.
But in many ways, the virus has also been the great unequaliser. Low income households have suffered disproportionately.
Any responsible society should see an opportunity to redress some of the imbalances between rich and poor. Sandro Galea, a professor of Epidemiology at Boston University said: “We need to question why there are deep asset gaps between haves and have nots, and use this as an opportunity to ask why we continue to have entrenched marginalisation of minority racial and ethnic groups.”
Social problems, he added, are hard to tackle but Covid-19 should give us the reasons to restructure our world so that there are no health haves and health have nots. It should also remind us of the importance of investing in “safe housing, good schools, liveable wages, gender equity, clean air, drinkable water, a fair economy”. It should be the biggest reminder of all that our health is our wealth. Without the vaccine – found at break-neck speed – there would’ve been no future.
It’s currently illegal to go on holiday abroad.
The pandemic has given us an opportunity to pay attention to and enjoy what’s on our doorstep rather than leave for foreign adventures that begin and end at a hotel and beach. It has allowed us to consider how we can best utilise what we have rather than chase an elusive dream.
If it’s too drastic to allow Covid to have put paid to holidays abroad, perhaps we should at least embrace the opportunity it has afforded us to be more selective in our choices, and to seek out experiences rather than empty vacations?
Or maybe we should consider travel with a conscience – such as charity work like building houses for those less fortunate than ourselves?
Mental health was a huge issue before the pandemic gave us a glimpse of a kinder society that understood how much we are connected and how deeply we depend on each other, according to Mark Rowland, boss of the Mental Health Foundation. Medication is not a way out of the mental-health crisis.
Post-pandemic, we now have an opportunity to, in his words, “create the conditions for good mental health and prevent mental ill health, by tackling inequality, trauma, isolation and stress”. Indeed, we now have an opportunity to reimagine what we want society to be.
Long before Covid-19 struck, 40% of office workers globally felt lonely, according to author Noreena Hertz, who wrote The Lonely Century: Coming Together in a World That’s Pulling Apart. She said: “The initial euphoria of remote working has already worn off: almost half of UK workers currently working from home feel lonely.” People are missing meaningful moments of connection with co-workers as well as friends.
Feeling connected to friends is “an important predictor of our physical health and emotional wellbeing”, and loneliness can be “toxic for our health” says clinical psychologist Miram Kirmayer.. The pandemic could serve as “a reminder of how precious our friendships are” and give us an opportunity to “cultivate more meaningful connections”. She added: “We will eventually resume our shared activities, playdates and events. But we can all benefit from cultivating closer, more fulfilling relationships.”
If nothing else the pandemic has exposed a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ modus operandi for many people in power. We had PM Boris Johnson’s right hand man Dominic Cummings breaking his own rules by driving to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight.
We had DUP MP Sammy Wilson's constant refusal to wear a face mask properly. Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill who refused to apologise for attending Bobby Storey’s funeral. It has given us the opportunity to see people for who they are and ultimately to hold power to account
At the height of the first lockdown in March 2020, shopfronts were boarded up, people had battened down the hatches and the streets were empty. Many doubted that life would return to normal, although Steven Taylor, psychiatry professor at the University of British Columbia, said: “Research on catastrophic events shows that most people do bounce back”. The shops however will not.
Perhaps the biggest casualty during Covid was department store Debenhams which, more than any other, represents the end of an era on the Belfast high street. Shopping has changed forever; ‘going down the town’ will never be the same again. The online marketplace is here to stay but it brings certain opportunities with it. For starters, we can be more discerning shoppers and buy only what we need.
This is, after all, the new normal; the old one has gone, forever.
A Year Link No Other
More coverage on Covid-19 can be found at:
Authors: Mark Bain, Suzanne Breen, Margaret Canning, Ralph Hewitt, Claire McNeilly, Lisa Smyth
Editor: Jonathan Bell
Produced by: Kevin McConnell, Julieann Tsang, Damian Young
Archive: Kevin Scott
Video: Ben Tucker
Graphics: Paula Dono Rodriguez
Published on February 24, 2020
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