Today's Executive meeting to address the medical emergency engulfing Northern Ireland produced an astonishing result.
A rare joint appearance by the first ministers gives the impression that something just took place but don’t confuse that with reality. Now we know that what health journalists suspected a few weeks back – there was no Plan B – was absolutely right.
The one substantive headline measure – an encouragement to work from home if possible – has been in place since 2020.
What’s next? The introduction of colour TV?
The only other recommendation was to, er, refer the recommendation-making to a taskforce, which will consider how existing recommendations on mask wearing, for example should be enforced.
That scraping sound you hear is the buck passing slowly from one end of Stormont to the other.
That’s it. Some repeat advice on social distancing and washing your hands, but no new inventive protections. No new timetable. Nothing resembling the Five-Step Plan the Executive worked to last year, where sectors could see where they stood as the struggle against Covid progressed. Nothing.
No response to the catastrophic impact of Covid on waiting lists, nothing on the impending closure of A&E units, nothing on the resignation of ICU nursing staff, nothing on schools or care homes or public transport or large crowds or churches or better ventilation.
Nothing to incentivise businesses to implement working from home.
Nothing supporting the employee who wants to work from home, but whose employer refuses to allow it. Nothing for those in less well-paid jobs who were working from home but were dragged back in, thanks to stupidly optimistic predictions from government and now, with rising household bills, have no choice of walking away from their job.
Nothing for the employee currently working at home and wondering how to navigate the email invitation to the works Christmas do.
Oh and stay at home, but don’t forget to use your Spend Local card before December 14.
The Executive’s inability to regard the immediate health risks of Covid as sufficient to warrant their full focus has been a failure of the last 18 months.
The simplest measures to counteract Covid were dismantled. Indeed, as Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit pointed out, MLAs on Monday were asked to “rubber-stamp Covid regulations, which were introduced weeks ago to end social distancing in hospitality venues” before discussing the possible reintroduction of such measures.
First Minister Paul Givan wanted to see all ‘restrictions’ discarded completely by the end of September. Today, he boasted that ‘only’ 30 care homes had Covid-19 outbreaks. This is fewer than a month ago, but these are after all supposed to be the safest environments for our most vulnerable. We can’t seem to keep them free of infection.
By now, it is almost too late to avoid what is heading our way over Christmas and New Year.
This outcome occurs after a 48-hour period of briefing and counter-briefing by competing ministers, every discussion about Covid front-loaded with concern about ‘avoiding lockdown’, even health advisers feeling obliged to apologise with caveats about the impact on shopping.
The perception has been fostered that it’s a choice between health and the economy. This, of course, isn’t true.
What is at odds is the way the Executive has lined up politically, with economy, infrastructure, justice, health and education in the hands of competing political ideologies.
Why was there no staged plan to assist businesses to re-open in a managed way while vaccinations and boosters were being distributed? Subsidy for businesses, retail and hospitality, which would find the costs of opening under restriction a greater financial burden?
Had views such as those restaurateur Michael Deane has been airing over recent days, whose business is dependent on public confidence, been listened to earlier by civil servants, the whole economy would be building back better right now.
Instead, what we got was an extended holiday period for the Executive, the cliff-edge of furlough being fallen over, the Universal Credit £20 top-up stopped, an expensive Spend Local scheme and pressure exerted on society at large to behave as though it was ‘all over’.
What hasn’t been at the centre of discussions is the absolute need to get control over this virus – imperative to ease pressures on other serious illnesses as the waiting lists lengthen to shameful proportions.
Even yesterday, Health Minister Robin Swann assured us that, while cancer patients would still have to endure lengthening waiting lists well into the future, he was intent on not re-introducing steps which might affect hospitality.
For weeks, Northern Ireland has been at a stage European countries are now trying to avoid. Just what crisis milestones need to be reached before politicians will admit we are in one?
Instead we have a bluff ‘no-nonsense’ approach, typified by Sammy Wilson’s attitude that the problem isn’t too many Covid cases, but not enough ICU beds.
But the case numbers have a grim and steady monotony; as do the serious illnesses; and the deaths with them.
Justice Minister Naomi Long has already undermined the taskforce by letting it be known she doesn’t think mask enforcement is a job for the police.
Likewise, Infrastructure Minister Nicola Mallon, an advocate of her party leader’s wise vaccine passport scheme, hasn’t implemented it on public transport.
It’s unlikely the DUP or SF will lose anything due to ineptitude over Covid – even the SF fiasco at the Storey funeral seems to have done no harm in the polls. But the three parties which have most to gain from showing leadership – Unionist, SDLP and Alliance – are those displaying division and contradiction.
This is the most desperately tragic period we’ve faced since the worst of the Troubles. The fact the deaths and serious illnesses come in discreet daily batches doesn’t lessen their appalling legacy.
There are five weeks to Christmas. Our death toll is a scandal. Where the Republic is at 0.12 per 100,000 and the UK at 0.22, ours stands at 0.32. This as a direct result of the Executive’s sloppy management over the summer and autumn. Even now, the so-called passport is not slated for introduction until mid-December.
When will someone take responsibility for the virus here? This is about action now, not messaging. There needs to be immediate direction on social behaviour and no more posturing that it’s somehow all over.
It isn’t. Stormont needs to stop treating us all like fools. We know where those are, thanks.