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Editor's Viewpoint

Society faces big test of its resolve to work for the greater good in face of coronavirus threat

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The Prime Minister could not have been more blunt. In his address to the UK public he warned that many families will lose loved ones before their time due to the coronavirus pandemic. (PA)

The Prime Minister could not have been more blunt. In his address to the UK public he warned that many families will lose loved ones before their time due to the coronavirus pandemic. (PA)

The Prime Minister could not have been more blunt. In his address to the UK public he warned that many families will lose loved ones before their time due to the coronavirus pandemic. (PA)

The Prime Minister could not have been more blunt. In his address to the UK public he warned that many families will lose loved ones before their time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In fairness, he is in an invidious position. If the science backs up this statement, then he must make the seriousness of the situation clear so that no one is under the misunderstanding that coronavirus is just another sort of winter flu and should be treated as such.

However, many people then question why the UK is not taking the same action as many other countries - controlling who can come here, the cancellation of large-scale events such as sport or concerts, the closure of schools and other similar measures.

That is a point that we in Northern Ireland are debating. As part of the UK we naturally follow the scientific advice emanating from London, yet just a few miles down the road, across the border, a large-scale clampdown on activity was announced yesterday, including the closure of all schools and colleges, and that indoor events of 100 people or more and outdoor events attracting 500 or more should be cancelled.

These are not necessarily commercial events. Indoor events could include wedding receptions, funerals or confirmations. There is no doubt the measures announced in the Republic will have an immediate effect on daily life there.

Yet life on this side of the border, at least in the immediate future, will be largely unaffected unless there is a large, sudden spike in cases.

In other parts of the UK there are concerns about the ability of the NHS to cope with a spike in cases. Already people are being asked not to ring the NHS 111 number for advice as it is being overwhelmed, and are instead to use a computer to look up the latest advice - something which may not be of much use to the elderly, especially those living alone who may not be computer-literate.

Here the NHS is already under much greater strain and is grossly understaffed. It would not take a great additional burden of coronavirus cases to cause a real crisis, especially if a significant proportion of the NHS became infected.

Coronavirus may be, as the Prime Minister said, the most serious public health crisis for a generation, but it is also a great social challenge which will test the resolve of society to work together for the greater good.

That means, for example, looking out for the elderly, especially those who live alone, keeping them abreast of the latest advice, getting them shopping if necessary and alerting the authorities if there is an obvious health problem.

It also means an end to panic-buying. No one needs to fill their homes with every pack of toilet rolls in the shop or every hand sanitiser, or panic-buy food as if we were all having to shelter for weeks from some radioactive fallout.

In modern times society has become more insular, with everyone looking out for themselves and the breakdown of the nuclear family. Fortunately in Northern Ireland there still remains a significant caring element in society, those who take note of the vulnerable and attempt to assist them where possible. That virtue will need to be to the fore in the coming weeks and months.

The Executive must also be prepared to work on its own initiative and take its own scientific advice, if the situation here diverges significantly from that in the rest of the UK, to ensure that measures are tailored to specific local needs.

Ultimately, common sense is one of the greatest weapons in our fight against this contagion.

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