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As Republic aims to do 100k coronavirus tests each week and Northern Ireland target is 8k, professor calls for urgent all-island strategy


Dr Gabriel Scally (Nial Carson/PA)

Dr Gabriel Scally (Nial Carson/PA)

Dr Gabriel Scally (Nial Carson/PA)

Former NHS doctor and professor of Public Health University of Bristol Dr Gabriel Scally has said Ireland’s geographical advantage is being squandered by the adoption of different approaches to dealing with the coronavirus.

Dr Scally called for the island of Ireland to work as one unit in the fight against the virus in light of different health policies being taken on both sides of the border, a problem he describes as potentially "very serious".

"The advice to someone in Lifford with symptoms of the disease is to self-isolate for a minimum of 14 days – a stone’s throw away in Strabane the advice is isolation for seven days," he said, writing in The Irish Times on Tuesday.

The Belfast-born doctor, who conducted the Scoping Inquiry into the CervicalCheck Screening Programme in the Republic, said a major difference which stands out is that the Republic is using widespread community testing, while in Northern Ireland and across the UK, testing is largely reserved for hospital inpatients and health service staff.

He wrote: "In the Republic with its network of over 40 community testing facilities, the aim is to reach 100,000 tests per week by the end of April, whereas the North has set a goal of performing just under 8,000 tests per week."

It comes as Tanaiste Simon Coveney is expected to hold a teleconference at midday on Tuesday with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State and Stormont’s leaders Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill to discuss ongoing cooperation to deal with coronavirus.

It will be the first time Mr Lewis will be involved in cross-border cooperation discussions.

Dr Scally criticised the approach of Whitehall, which he said does not want people learning about the views of WHO and the successful efforts to control the virus in other countries. The public health expert accused the UK of having ignored the experience of other countries while the Republic has watched and learned from the experiences of South Korea and China in controlling the disease.

He expressed disappointment that Northern Ireland had followed the advice from Whitehall, along with devolved government in Scotland.

"The unified approach held firm even when it was revealed by the small coterie of senior officials guiding policy that their actual aim was for the population to actively develop “herd immunity”.

"It is an approach that is regarded by many senior public health physicians as dangerously flawed," he said, saying the key aim of the battle against the virus is to gain time to develop a vaccine and allow the summer weather to mitigate the spread," he said.

Calling for Northern Ireland to "decouple" themselves from the Whitehall approach, he said if this does not happen, a larger percentage of the population here may be infected earlier and due to pressure on the health service, deaths may be higher.

He said if travel, education and work restrictions are lifted at different times in different parts of the island, there could be another mass outbreak.

"It is a big ask, but now is not the time to be captives of our histories. Lives can and should be saved," he said.

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