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Fionola Meredith

We've toed line and observed the lockdown ... now it's time Stormont told us its exit plans

Fionola Meredith


The government strategy of treating us like fools could lead to revolt over restrictions, argues Fionola Meredith

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Keeping schtum: Robin Swann has refused to divulge details over the lifting of lockdown

Keeping schtum: Robin Swann has refused to divulge details over the lifting of lockdown

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Keeping schtum: Robin Swann has refused to divulge details over the lifting of lockdown

The people of Northern Ireland have shown how seriously they take the threat of coronavirus by willingly giving up their freedom - the very lifeblood of our democracy - in order to protect themselves and others.

This is an enormous sacrifice, which comes at a terrifying cost. Economy wrecked. Livelihoods ruined. The dreadful possibility that deaths caused by the effects of the lockdown could massively exceed those caused by Covid-19 itself.

And yet we did it just the same, sustained by the collective belief that it's the right thing to do. We're still doing it. Staying at home, under house arrest by consent.

So why, now, is the Northern Ireland Executive refusing to trust us with the truth?

Why won't our government tell us its plan for a pathway out of this paralysis?

We all know that the lockdown cannot continue indefinitely. Other countries, with death tolls similar to our own, are already on the move.

Where is the proof that people are "relaxing their guard"? There is none. All the so-called evidence is anecdotal

This week, Spain - one of the worst-hit countries in the world - followed Italy in publishing a detailed de-escalation plan.

Yet instead of crediting the public with the great good sense and self-control they have already demonstrated, our politicians keep schtum and scold us like naughty children for apparently showing signs of "complacency".

Where is the proof that people are "relaxing their guard"? There is none. All the so-called evidence is anecdotal.

What I see when I'm out on my permitted walks - which is also obviously anecdotal - are people stringently observing the measures.

Are we bored, anxious, frustrated, uncertain of the future? Of course we are. But we're still following orders - so far.

The big risk is that this could change if people don't feel they are being trusted with the truth. What we need to hear are the facts as they stand, and the thinking on the best way forward.

To be fair, the facts themselves are in short supply. This is a new disease, and little is known about it.

While we do know that the vast majority of people who die from it are elderly and/or have pre-existing health conditions, we don't know the true mortality rate (the percentage of people who die as a result of contracting the disease), because we don't yet know how many people have been infected.

The mathematical modelling on which governments rely is little more than theoretical guesswork, with huge margins for error.

To see this confusion in action, you only have to look at the wild fluctuations in the potential death figures from Covid-19 in Northern Ireland, cited by Health Minister Robin Swann.

On March 19, Mr Swann warned of "a surge of Biblical proportions", saying that 15,000 people could die in Northern Ireland. That swiftly changed to 14,000 and then to 9,000. By April 1, Mr Swann was reported as saying 3,000 people could die.

The assumption seems to be that the public can't handle uncertainty, and yet the uncertainty is blatantly obvious

At the time of writing, 329 people have died from coronavirus in Northern Ireland (although that figure is likely to increase since it relates largely to hospital fatalities).

This is where the vital need for openness, transparency and accountability comes in. If you want people to keep following the necessary social distancing measures, you have to be honest and clear with them.

The assumption seems to be that the public can't handle uncertainty, and yet the uncertainty is blatantly obvious.

Robin Swann says that the Executive won't set a date to begin easing lockdown because it could increase complacency as people "rush to that date".

With the utmost respect, Mr Swann - and that's a lot more than you're showing us, the public - you are taking us for heedless fools.

What's more, basic psychology should tell you that we are more likely to continue complying if we're trusted to see the exit plan. Keep us in shutdown limbo, with no end in sight, and there could be revolt down the line.

Of course, Stormont has a long history of secrecy, obfuscation and indefensible economy with the facts. Notoriously, during the RHI inquiry it emerged that minutes were not taken at some meetings because they might be released to the public under Freedom of Information requests.

Sweden has taken a very different approach. It has chosen not to impose a total coronavirus lockdown, on the grounds that citizens could be trusted to follow social distancing protocols. Sweden's current death rate of 22 per 100,000 is about the same as that of the locked-down Republic of Ireland, which has been praised for its control of the pandemic.

Every death is a dreadful loss. We all want to protect lives and support the NHS. But people aren't stupid. So please don't treat us as if we are.

Belfast Telegraph