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Editor's Viewpoint

Green shoots of hope emerging at the end of a calamitous year



Shoppers out in force in Belfast city centre

Shoppers out in force in Belfast city centre

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Shoppers out in force in Belfast city centre

It has certainly been a year like no other, or has it? Yes, we are still in the grip of a global pandemic which has created unprecedented pressure on the local health service and been responsible for 1,240 deaths, but as far as governance of the province is concerned, discord and dysfunction have been the key words on far too many occasions.

The year started so well. The politicians, having rested on their differences for three years, decided to return to Stormont, lured by a promised dowry of £2bn to implement the New Decade, New Approach strategy.

On the opening day - an unprecedented Saturday sitting - First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill vowed to attempt to put the past behind them and urged all the parties to adopt a united front.

The politicians' return to the jobs they should have been doing won universal praise from figures as diverse as Boris Johnson and Bill Clinton, but there was always the lurking suspicion that the promised new approach could not be sustained and that old whatabouteries would inevitably surface, which they of course did.

The year also saw the deaths of two political giants, John Hume and Seamus Mallon. How we could do with more of that ilk today.

Away from politics, a new enemy approached from the east, a disease called Covid-19 that virtually paralysed whole swathes of the globe and reduced even the most advanced economies to near stasis.

Its spread was so rapid and its potential so lethal that everywhere was gripped by a sense of dread. The first death on March 19 was swiftly followed by a complete lockdown that was observed with great discipline by almost the entire population.

It fostered a wartime sense of community. People looked out for each other. The elderly and alone were guaranteed help from neighbours as everyone battened down the hatches and prepared to sit out the weeks to see how things developed.

There were countless cases of unasked for kindness, and on the front line doctors, nurses and all the ancillary staff required to run busy hospitals went the extra mile day after day in the battle to save lives.

In many instances, it was an uphill battle with a lack of proper PPE - one entire order which was highly publicised mysteriously failed to turn up.

In England, Strabane man Pat McManus died after contracting the virus while carrying out nursing duties in a hospital.

In the community, the situation was even worse as residents and staff in nursing and residential homes were left virtually defenceless against the virus, with the obvious results.

At the helm of the Executive's response to the crisis was Robin Swann, who to his credit took on the health portfolio that the DUP and Sinn Fein, previous incumbents of the post, had cannily bypassed when choosing their departments.

Mr Swann's response to the pandemic may not always have been rapid enough or sufficiently robust, but he is acknowledged as having done his best in exceptional circumstances.

Unlike some of his ministerial colleagues, he largely followed the science, and his sincere sorrow at the human cost of the virus shone through on many occasions.

Ultimately, it is the human cost in deaths which will be the hallmark of 2020. In each of the 1,240 homes there will be an empty chair, in some cases two, tomorrow.

Christmas is a time of joy but also of reflection, and there will be many families thinking of how the virus robbed them of the chance to say their final goodbyes to their loved ones as they would have wished.

We have heard some of the heartbreaking stories of how families' lives changed in days, with a cough developing into a deadly respiratory illness.

But as we approach a new lockdown, there is reason to approach the new year with optimism.

The development of three vaccines gives us new weapons to fight the virus. However, we need to show greater responsibility than has been evident in recent months. Follow the science and keep safe and socially distanced, and we can still have a happy Christmas.

Belfast Telegraph