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Eilis O'Hanlon

Scaremongering about coronavirus is irresponsible, but so is treating the public like children who must be protected from the truth

Eilis O'Hanlon


This paternalistic addiction to secrecy ignores the fact that it's the very act of refusing to be open with information which breeds rumour and fear in the first place, says Eilis O'Hanlon

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Tourists wearing masks walk past the Louvre museum in Paris

Tourists wearing masks walk past the Louvre museum in Paris

AP

Tourists wearing masks walk past the Louvre museum in Paris

When he gets to his feet at Stormont on Monday to update MLAs on his department's handling of coronavirus in Northern Ireland, there are a number of questions which Health Minister Robin Swann needs to answer. Or, to put it another way, which need to be asked by MLAs - if they're doing their jobs of holding the Executive to account.

It's now accepted that the woman who is in quarantine at home with her daughter made her way to Belfast on the Enterprise service after landing at Dublin Airport from an infected area of Italy. A taxi driver has come forward to say that he drove her from the airport to catch her train and he was later contacted by the police after being identified on CCTV. He's now put himself into isolation.

Despite that, health authorities in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have insisted from the start, and continue to do so, that everyone who was in contact with the woman and who needs to be tracked down has already been identified and that "members of the public who have travelled between Dublin and Belfast using public transport need not be concerned".

But how can they possibly say that for certain? Contacting all those who might have come into contact with this woman would require identifying all other passengers on the train and it's not possible to know exactly who was on board at the time, or where they were sitting.

It may be possible to trace passengers who paid for a ticket by credit card, but it would still take time and some passengers will likely have paid with cash, making them anonymous.

Furthermore, Irish Rail say they had no contact with the Department of Health in Dublin, but did a deep clean of the Enterprise as a precaution anyway once details of her journey plans began to emerge.

So, again, how could the authorities have contacted everyone who was on the train without going through Irish Rail first, who presumably are the only ones with access to whatever scant details there are to identify travellers?

In Northern Ireland the Enterprise service is managed by Translink. The same question applies. How did the Government and health authorities track down everyone who was on that train, or even in a particular carriage, without going through Translink?

Unless the Government is operating some sinister, Orwellian facial recognition programme on us all, that must be considered an unfeasibly complex task until they explain exactly how they did it.

If the authorities didn't contact Translink or Irish Rail to alert them to the fact that a passenger with suspected Covid-19 had used their service hours earlier, that would be genuinely scandalous and needs to be clarified.

The official guidelines are that there are a number of ways to be infected through "close contact" with an infected person. The NHS website clarifies these ways to include living in the same house, face-to-face contact, such as "talking for more than a few minutes", coming into contact with bodily fluids, being coughed on and being within two metres of the person for more than 10 minutes.

The authorities appear to be placing the greatest emphasis in this case on the last condition, which is why they say they have narrowed down possible candidates for infection to those who shared the plane with the infected woman, and later the train.

But what about the other possible sources of infection, such as "coming into contact with bodily fluids"? Guidelines from the Health Service Executive (HSE) in the Republic clearly state: "You could get the virus if you ... touch surfaces that someone who had the virus has coughed, or sneezed, on."

They also explain that the virus can survive for up to "a few hours if someone who has it coughs, or sneezes, on a surface".

In other words, if any person was, within a few hours, to touch a surface onto which this woman coughed or sneezed at any point during her journey, they may well be infected, too.

And if she did indeed take a taxi from the airport to the station, that would also include anybody who got into the same taxi afterwards, for a period of hours, who is similarly untraceable.

The nagging question arises again: how can the health authorities, north and south, be certain they've contacted everyone who might've been infected that way?

Common sense says that they can't, considering the huge volume of people who pass through transport hubs, such as airports and train stations and in and out of taxis. So, why are they still saying it?

Interestingly, when he spoke to BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra on Friday Robin Swann only said: "If you have not been contacted at this stage, it's likely you have nothing to worry about."

That "likely" may have been just a verbal aside rather than a get-out clause, but it was certainly less absolute than statements by the Irish health minister, who said without qualification on RTE radio in Friday: "If you have not been contacted by the health authorities, you do not need to worry."

Minister Swann's latest official statement made no assertion whatsoever about who may, or may not, have been infected. It was merely a bland holding position about how he's co-operating closely with his counterpart in Dublin and how everyone in public health is "working hard to contain the spread of this virus and keep us well". No one ever said otherwise. But there are still questions to be answered.

The reason for releasing such a paucity of information may be that the authorities don't want people to panic unnecessarily. That's reasonable enough.

More than 10,000 people have been tested in the UK at this stage and all but a handful of results have come back negative. The decision by the World Health Organisation to declare it a pandemic prompted the UK chief medical officers to raise the threat level from low to moderate, but it's not a full-blown crisis yet.

What this paternalistic addiction to secrecy ignores is that it's the very act of refusing to be open with information which leads to rumour and fear in the first place.

It's better to be upfront rather than giving out wishy-washy assurances that all is well when people's own common sense tells them that might not be true.

Scaremongering is irresponsible, but so is treating the public like children who must be shielded from the truth.

There may be simple and sensible answers to all these questions, but we won't find out unless MLAs bother asking them.

Isn't that what they're paid for after all?

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