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UK and Republic split on coronavirus response with Northern Ireland caught in middle of mixed messages

The British and Irish Governments have both insisted they are dealing with coronavirus in the right way after they announced radically different approaches to tackling the pandemic.

In a surprise announcement on Thursday morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that all schools, colleges and childcare centres in the Republic will close for two weeks. He also said all large indoor and outdoor gatherings should be cancelled, and encouraged home working and limited socialising.

It was expected that Boris Johnson would announce similar measures later, but during his conference late on Thursday afternoon the Prime Minister said that while the UK will move to the delay phase of the virus, he is not currently closing schools.

Mr Johnson told reporters at a Press conference in Downing Street that there was no need to close schools now as the scientific advice "is that this could do more harm than good".

Mr Johnson said he is still considering whether to cancel major sporting events and mass gatherings.

He said this may change at some point while in the future, if somebody is taken ill, their entire household could be told to self-isolate.

Mr Johnson said: "We've all got to be clear, this is the worst public health crisis for a generation.

"Some people compare it to seasonal flu, alas that is not right. Due to the lack of immunity this disease is more dangerous. It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time."

Meanwhile, in a joint announcement between First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, it was revealed that the Stormont Executive was only given a "10 minute" warning ahead of Mr Varadkar's statement.

Sinn Fein's vice-president added that the Executive will "probably" have to make a decision about closing schools in the future.

Virologist Dr Connor Bamford said he believed there were different arguments for both strategies and it was too early to say which government has made the right decision.

Thursday's drama came as:

  • The Public Health Agency revealed there were two new presumed positive cases of coronavirus in Northern Ireland, bringing the total to 20.
  • Two more patients died in UK hospitals after testing positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of deaths to 10, NHS England said.
  • Health Minister Robin Swann told Stormont's Health Committee that deaths should be expected in Northern Ireland.
  • Another 27 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the Republic of Ireland, bringing the total to 70.
  • The UK Government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said up to 10,000 people could be infected with coronavirus.
  • Queen's University Belfast announced that all large-scale events would be postponed with immediate effect.
  • The Bosnia and Herzegovina FA and the Slovakia FA asked Uefa to call off their Euro 2020 play-off matches against Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
  • All GAA and rugby in Ireland, including the Danske Bank Schools Cup and Ulster Rugby, was postponed until March 29.
  • Down Royal Racecourse said its St Patrick's Day race meeting on March 17 will run behind closed doors.

With the Republic taking more stringent action than the UK, Downing Street defended the UK-wide approach being taken by the Prime Minister and adopted in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman was asked whether Northern Ireland would now be treated differently from the rest of the UK in response to the Irish move.

"In terms of our own response, we have said that we want it to be a UK-wide response and we have been working with the four chief medical officers and devolved administrations," the spokesman said.

Asked about the difference in the approach in Dublin, the spokesman added: "We follow our own advice, they will do the same."

Mr Varadkar was also asked for his view on the different approach being taken to coronavirus here.

"Northern Ireland is a different jurisdiction from the Republic of Ireland and they are making some different decisions," he said.

"For example in Northern Ireland the schools are staying open whereas in the Republic they are closing. We are different jurisdictions, different decisions will be made but we are going to keep in very close contact so that we inform each other of decisions we're making and our thinking behind them."

Reacting to Thursday's contrasting approaches by the two governments, Alliance Party health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw felt that Northern Ireland was taking the lead from Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride, rather than the Prime Minister.

The South Belfast MLA said she was confident that the decision to keep Northern Ireland's schools open was made by medical professionals here, rather than in England.

"We have a lot of bright brains and I suppose people have been saying in the last few hours that we're taking the lead from Boris but I don't think that's the case," she continued.

"Dr Michael McBride is a very intelligent man and he's surrounded by a lot of experts.

"The decision for Northern Ireland would very much have been made by people here who know how our health service works, know what our infrastructure is like and [are] very much across the detail of what will work when the time comes to move into those phases of closing and restricting access."

However, People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said it was "patently absurd" that the Republic is taking the "sensible strategy" to close schools while Northern Ireland is not.

Belfast Telegraph