Another day, another row at Stormont. This time it comes after the DUP MP Sammy Wilson claimed his party leader put the brakes on a series of extreme lockdown proposals put forward by health officials and aimed at bringing Covid-19 to heel.
Health Minister Robin Swann was quick to issue a rebuttal, branding the comments “ill-informed and bogus”. However, unfortunately it wasn’t the first time during this pandemic that the message coming from our politicians has been muddied and unclear.
Just cast your mind back a matter of weeks to a social media post from Mr Wilson in which he compared wearing a face covering in public to being muzzled. It appeared just as the Department of Health was desperately trying to encourage as many people as possible to don the PPE as shielding came to an end for more than 90,000 people.
Then there was the fallout from the Bobby Storey funeral, which was enough to stop our two top politicians from standing shoulder to shoulder to deliver key public health messages during one of the greatest crises Northern Ireland has ever faced.
Of course, epic fallouts among our politicians are nothing new — Covid-19 arrived in Northern Ireland just as Stormont was finding its feet again after a three-year hiatus. So, given our troubled history, the public here is more than used to watching the various personalities engage in political point-scoring.
But how much damage is being caused in the war against Covid-19 while some of our elected representatives and officials seem unable to agree on basic public health advice?
There’s no doubt the decision by some senior Sinn Fein representatives to stand in crowds at funerals at the height of the first wave diluted the public health message somewhat.
And what about the introduction of local lockdowns amid grim warnings of a second deadly spike, followed by the announcement that wet pubs will be allowed to reopen? Then came comments last week from another DUP MP, Ian Paisley Jnr, who said that “no health minister, and no Government will close Ballymena to its people”.
No-one is suggesting that the decisions being made throughout the pandemic should not be examined and challenged. Certainly, there are examples where the official response to the virus — particularly in the early days — was found wanting and it was only right and proper that those charged with keeping us safe through this emergency should be held to account. This shouldn’t change as we move into what could be an even more deadly phase of the pandemic.
However, a strong and coherent public health message will prove vital in the coming months if we’re to keep a lid on Covid-19.
There’s no doubt the ever-changing rules and advice are confusing, while the fact that the regulations in Northern Ireland can differ considerably from the rest of the UK is also proving a challenge.
We’re heading into winter facing the potential ravages of a deadly pandemic at a time when our health service is already on its knees.
A balance must be struck between two competing demands — that of suppressing the virus and rebuilding the economy. It isn’t going to be easy but it doesn’t have to be impossible either.