Agenda item

Deputation: Prof. Anthony Staines, Dublin City University and Prof. Helen Dolk, University of Ulster - Zero Covid Group (Independent Scientific Advocacy Group)

See link for background


The Chair welcomed the representatives of the Zero Covid Group, Professor Anthony Staines, of Dublin City University and Professor Helen Dolk, Ulster University and invited them to make their presentation to the Committee.


                        Professor Staines gave a brief overview to the Committee regarding the Zero Covid Group.  He stated that the group was attempting to bring lives back to normal as quickly and expeditiously as possible.  He stated that Covid-19 had significantly impacted both parts of this island and the United Kingdom and had been horrendously difficult for everyone.  He explained that he had trained in the UK in medicine and public health and had also worked in the South of Ireland for several years.  He believed that the current analysis illustrated that the island was under severe restrictions, essentially to protect the health service and reduce the number of coronavirus cases.  He stated that there had previously been several lockdowns in Ireland and parts of the UK of various degrees of severity and complexities.  He believed that once the current restrictions would cease, the case numbers would once again increase. 


Continuing he noted that the rate of infection in the South of Ireland had decreased to single figures by June 2020.  Subsequently, a decision had been made to re-open the economy.  He stated that infection rates steadily rose again once the economy had re-opened until the second lockdown in October 2020.  He stated that the second lockdown had reported almost 1000 cases per day and it was felt that the health system would come under serious stress if that continued.  He further stated that when the country opened up again for Christmas with about 200 cases per day it was now running at 3,000 to 4,000 cases per day.  He expressed concern that the health service, which has substantially less capacity than the health services in most other parts of the UK, was creaking at the seams. 


He stated that the Zero Covid Group was asking the government to consider using the current lockdown to achieve several goals.  He noted that the current plan of the government in the South, is that people would live with the virus.  Therefore, cases of infection would reduce to a reasonable figure, open up again and as the number of cases rose again, subsequently close.   He stated that it was hoped that the vaccine would eventually eradicate the virus.  He noted that the timescale for vaccine deployment in the Republic was the end of September 2021, with England and Wales at the end of October 2021.  He advised that he did not have the details for Northern Ireland but assumed that it would be similar.  He stated that from a business perspective, vaccinating a large number of the population would not prevent viral spread of the infection.  He referred to the Manaus area of Brazil, which was slightly larger than Dublin, where 60% of the population was infected with Covid-19.   He stated that a report had been published stating that 60% was enough to suppress infection.  He noted that virologists had reported that 60% was not sufficient to suppress a further outbreak, it was closer to 80%.  He advised that this would mean that 8 out of 10 people had to be vaccinated to stop the spread of the virus in Ireland and the UK.   He expressed concern that the implications of not taking action, it was expected to have further episodes of lockdown over the course of the Spring and Summer, with substantial damage to the economy, tourism and to people’s lives. 


Continuing, Professor Staines stated that the group had suggested a number of actions such as aggressive suppression; with the idea being to reduce the number of cases and to prevent new cases coming in.  He stated that whilst it may seem controversial, unfortunately it was probably very necessary.  He noted that 50,000 people flew in to the Republic of Ireland over the Christmas period which contributed to the major outbreak we are now experiencing.  He stated that managing travel within the Republic of Ireland and between the South and North of Ireland would be controversial but possible.   He advised that travel restrictions between counties was already in place with proposals to extend those restrictions along the border areas.  He felt that a special arrangement was needed at the border regions for people who live on one side of the border but may work on the other side.  He stated that discussions had taken place with government officials, politicians and the police on both sides of the border to assess the feasibility of such actions.  He stated that it was important to continue with all the steps to prevent the spread of infection such as wearing masks, hand hygiene and proper ventilation until the virus was eliminated.  He noted that a recent opinion poll had reported a widespread acceptance of these changes and behaviour. 


He referred to contact tracing and stated that South of the border had failed to carry out this out properly.  He stated that people were only asked about their movements for the 48 hours before they presented for testing, therefore it was difficult to establish where they became infected.  He stated that identifying and testing cases rapidly, contact tracing and supported isolation was vital.  He referred to those required to isolate and expressed concern that many people who had to isolate were not being paid by their employer.  He stated that better financial support was needed in this regard and that the impact of isolation must be seriously considered.  He further stated that the mental health impact of the restrictions in place also need to be seriously considered to help people to cope.  He stated that there were many people who, for example, cared for vulnerable adults.  If those carers were required to isolate, who was going to care for those people they were responsible for.  He stated that it was important for all of these practical issues to be considered.


Continuing, he referred to regional control, and stated that when cases of infection decreased on both sides of the border, these areas could be managed differently.  He advised that after discussions with the Dublin and Belfast Chambers of Commerce, the cycle of opening and closing of businesses was extremely damaging to business and the economy.  He stated that in New Zealand and Australia there was very little foreign tourism and workers to those countries.  He stated that Australians were taking their holidays at home this year and felt that people from Northern Ireland could support the local hospitality industry if they took similar steps.  However, this could only happen if the number of cases can be restricted.  He felt that it was likely that even if the number of cases was driven to zero, there would be further outbreaks.  For example, in Australia they were investigating outbreaks in Brisbane and an area of Sydney and those areas have been closed by a fairly intense but routine public health measure.  He stated that apart from those outbreaks, life, businesses and the economy were back to normal, with Covid rapidly becoming an unpleasant memory. 


Professor Staines advised the Committee that more information regarding the work of the Zero Covid Group could be found at the following websites:

                        Professor Dolk stated that since the beginning of the pandemic it had become apparent that by the cycle of lockdowns and allowing the virus numbers to increase was not good for health and business.  She stated that it was important to get the infection rate down to as low as possible and keep it low.  She stated that in order to do this, it was important to act early.  She expressed concern that in the UK and Northern Ireland there was a problem in terms of being late in agreeing on the actions.   She stated that it was also important that businesses had to be immediately supported during the lockdowns.  She expressed concern at the pressures currently faced by the health service in coping with both Covid and non-Covid conditions. 

Continuing, she stated that since the first lockdown in March 2020, there was a potential problem, although not a lot of actual data, regarding isolation.  She noted that testing and tracing was carried out, however, this was of no use unless people were able to isolate for the 10-14 days to prevent further transmission of the virus.  She reported that UK wide evidence suggested that many people were not financially able to isolate as required.   She stated that steps had to be taken to increase the financial compensation for people to enable them to isolate appropriately as isolation was at the core of virus control. 


She referred to isolation and quarantine at border areas with its individual implications and that it would be useful to co-ordinate more with the South.  She stated that both sides need to resolve issues such as restrictions being imposed at different times and the types of quarantine imposed for international travellers in the North and the South.  She referred to the internal border of East/West, between Northern Ireland and other countries of the UK, which should be viewed as a pandemic control border and not Brexit.  She emphasised that it was necessary to consider restrictions at that border in order to allow Northern Ireland to get the virus levels to decrease.  She stated that this could be achieved either by quarantine or the requirements for negative testing.   


Continuing, she advised on the advancing science on how the virus was transmitted.  She stated that there was more emphasis on aerosol transmission as opposed to surfaces and droplet transmission.  She stated that this meant that the virus was transmitted over longer distances and that improved ventilation was required in shops, restaurants and places of work to make them safer.  She felt that more could be done in regard to ventilation and people’s understanding of ventilation.  She stated that it was important to have a goal and as Professor Staines had outlined, the goal was to be keep the virus down really low, almost at zero, to ensure that community transmission was virtually eliminated.  She stated that such action was better for the economy rather than letting businesses open up as soon as possible, only to result in further lockdowns. 


She referred to the mass vaccination programme and stated that it was projected that the programme in Northern Ireland would be taking place by the end of Summer 2021.  She stated that at that point, it was hoped by approaching herd immunity, that businesses could reopen.  However, they should not open up earlier than or give in to calls to open up as soon as the most vulnerable were vaccinated.  She stated that this would result in extremely high virus levels with resulting major implications for both health and the economy.


                        The Chair thanked Professors Staines and Dolk for the informative presentation and invited comments from Members.


                        Councillor R Barr thanked the representatives for the presentation.  He asked their views on an all-Ireland strategy, in terms of implementation of guidelines and combining resources to tackle Covid-19.  He also asked their views on airports remaining open for domestic flights in the country.


                        In response, Professor Dolk felt that the more co-ordination that took place throughout the island of Ireland the better.  She stated that Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, depended on the UK for financial aid for businesses and testing services.  She stated that a co-ordinated strategy was needed throughout Ireland but also across the UK.  She felt that whilst it was a complicated situation, the North and South could have done more to co-ordinate this over the past year.  She stated that in terms of airports, more response was needed to the possibility of a new variant of the virus and that travel should be restricted within the UK.  She felt that there was a large proportion of the new variant at this point.  Therefore, it was too late to take action.  However, as time goes on it was important to be more open to restrictions to travel to other countries in the UK.  She stated that this may result in imposing quarantine in order to manage the situation and also to co-ordinate what was happening in the South.  She stated that officials in the South of Ireland had decided not to introduce a Covid elimination policy.  She stated that Northern Ireland would also not agree but for different reasons.  She stated that a similar strategy to that taken in Australia must be considered for Ireland and the UK.


                        Professor Staines stated that the Australian state borders have been opened for over 100 years and this is the first time in living memory, that they had closed.  He stated that once closed, special arrangements were put in place for those who lived close to the border or who worked across the border.  He stated that this worked to minimise the hardship and significant disruption and as a temporary measure, was worth considering.


                        Councillor McHugh thanked the representatives for attending the meeting.  He stated that Ireland was a small country with two jurisdictions and it made absolute sense for the problem to be approached with an all-Ireland, coherent strategy.  He advised that Sinn Féin had called for such a strategy from the outset of the pandemic. He stated that his comments did not emanate from any party political ideology.  However, if both sides of the border concentrated resources and had a harmonious strategy within both jurisdictions, then promoting the preservation of life would be apparent and should be the main focus.


                        Alderman Devenney felt that the impact of the virus had been a difficult time for everyone due to the severe restrictions which were put in place to keep the infection rate down and protect the health service.  He agreed that it would be an open and closed situation for businesses and the economy until some normality was reached.  He felt this could only be achieved by the mass roll-out of the vaccine.  He expressed concern that certain vaccination programmes in the UK would not take place until the Spring of 2022.


He referred to the comments made by Professor Dolk regarding Northern Ireland and the UK being late on imposing restrictions.  He noted that currently the situation in the Republic of Ireland, despite all the measures and restrictions in place, reported the highest rate of infection across the world per head of population.  He referred to comments regarding domestic flights and whilst he understood that it was a complicated issue, anyone entering NI should take a test before their arrival.  He asked if Professor Dolk agreed, that anyone who travelled to a country with a negative test result would not be required to isolate. 


                        Councillor Harkin thanked the representatives from the Zero Covid group to the meeting.  He noted that People Before Profit had made the proposal for the group to present to the Committee.  He regretted that the proposal had not been brought forward at the beginning of the pandemic.  He stated that the current situation across the island was appalling.  He believed that in his opinion, the economy had not been protected by the coalition government or by the Stormont Executive.  He stated that they had also failed to protect people’s lives and the health service.  He felt that the health service was creaking due to the policies emanating from both governments on this island who were incapable of developing an all-island strategy to deal with the pandemic.  He stated that it was not about borders but having a rational policy to deal with a health crisis.  He felt that the rise of infection rates and mortality due to Covid-19 did not need to happen as there were other strategies that could have been implemented such as the Zero Covid Strategy.  He stated that this meant not pandering and opening businesses because of lobbying and implementing half measures which resulted in a lot of community transmission.  He believed that Council should have been able to take decisive steps at the beginning across the island and by doing this, it would have been a situation similar to New Zealand. 


 He stated that the implementation of the vaccine had brought hope. However, mass vaccinations would not take place for some months.  He stated that the Stormont Executive and the Dáil were informed that infection rates would be out of control at this time of year, due to winter transmission of other viruses such as flu.  However, they both opened up the economy before Christmas.  He felt that those institutions were culpable for putting the health service under severe pressure and the rise in infection rates and that they had attempted to blame the public for their policies.  He urged the Political Parties to give the proposals from the Zero Covid Group serious consideration. 


                        In response, Professor Dolk stated that it would be worth asking for a formal evaluation of the zero Covid elimination option as in the South, it was mentioned as an option.  However, in the North it has been roundly ignored by the Executive and she felt that it should be considered at the very least with reasons given why it was not being followed.  He felt that the group was owed an explanation why the zero Covid option was not being considered by the Executive, particularly by the Minister for Health.   She stated that more transparency was needed in the evidence being used to shape policy such as where was the transmission occurring and in what settings.  She stated that a more evidence based approach to the problems was needed rather than implying that it was due to lack of compliance by sections of the population in a generalised manner.


                        Alderman Hussey noted that the situation had already been referred to where the Republic of Ireland reported the worst infection rate in the world.  He stated that Northern Ireland was in the best positon within the British Isles, with one case in every 200.  He stated that whilst he was mindful of those who called for an all-Ireland strategy, he noted that New Zealand was not one island.  He suggested that a British Isles approach was a more logical step given the inter-dependency between all parts of those isles.  He concurred with the remarks made that the stop start regime has been extremely detrimental to businesses and from a business perspective, it would have been more beneficial to re-open when it was proper and safe to do so.  He stated that the health service was currently overwhelmed and felt that a much more stringent enforcement of the regulations was needed to have a significant impact regarding the spread of infection.  He asked the representatives if they had asked to make presentations to the relevant administrations at the Dáil and the Stormont Executive, in particular to the Minister for Health.  He stated that Mr Swann, Minister for Health, was doing a tremendous job and felt that the Minister would take all options and solutions into consideration and if so, what has been the response.


                        Councillor Edwards concurred with the previous speakers on the need for an all-Ireland approach to the pandemic.  He noted that in the spring of 2020, this Council area had the second lowest rate of Covid infection in the whole of Northern Ireland and by Autumn this had risen to one of the highest in the UK.  He referred to community transmission and stated that he had witnessed complacency by some members of the public towards the restrictions and this has resulted in a rise in community transmission.  He asked how this issue could be acted upon.


                        Councillor Ferguson welcomed the different strategies put forward by the Zero Covid Group.  She referred to comments that a decrease of 60% of the infection rate was not necessarily enough for herd immunity and noted that some people were opposed to vaccinations.  She stated that anti-vaccine campaigners were relaying misinformation on social media and asked what the outcome would if not enough people received the vaccine.


                        Alderman Warke stated that he welcomed that an all-Ireland approach had not be taken towards the pandemic.  He stated that before Christmas the South of Ireland went from having one of the lowest infection rates in Europe to now being the highest in the world.  He felt that this was because they had almost returned to normal before the Christmas period with the opening of shops and the hospitality sector.  He stated that Northern Ireland had taken the correct decision to remain closed.  He stated that unfortunately the infection was currently high in the Council area, but welcomed the decrease in recent days and hoped that the figures in the South would decrease much quicker than they currently are.  He concurred with the comments made by Alderman Hussey that a British Isles approach would be more sensible and felt that a complete closure of the North/South border was needed to drive down the infection rate.


                        In response, Professor Staines stated that the Zero Covid Group and the independent Sage group worked together on a way forward.  He believed that it made more sense for a UK based organisation to deal with the UK government and an organisation based on the island of Ireland to deal with jurisdictions on that island.  He stated that with enormous amount of sharing of information, he agreed that it would make a great deal of sense and the group had placed these matters before the various governments involved. 


He referred to the previous comments regarding vaccination and stated that from the evidence they had reported that unfortunately, at 60% infection rate, there was a possibility of further major outbreaks of Covid-19.  He stated that the suggestion from the virologists, with reason on their side, that 80% coverage was needed to stop the virus circulating.  He hoped that this was true for both the existing strain and for the new UK strain and the new South African strain, however more information was needed.  He stated that experience had shown that there was a small number of people who were anti-vaccine and could only be given the vaccine by force.   He stated that there were many people who were vaccine hesitant as they needed reassurance that the vaccine was a reasonably safe option.  He stated that conversations among people had helped to change people’s thinking regarding vaccines.  He felt that most people were actually vaccine hesitant rather than completely anti-vaccine.


                        In addition, Professor Dolk referred to comments made regarding a British Isles approach.  She stated that the preferred position of the group was that the UK and Ireland adopted a zero Covid type elimination strategy.  She stated that Independent SAGE had also argued for the strategy as well as many others throughout England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  She believed that it was currently unlikely that England would adopt the zero Covid strategy. However, with the new variant currently present in the UK, the situation had changed as the new variant came about due to virus levels being allowed to remain high.  She stated that discussions taking place within UK government regarding testing all new arrivals and the requirement for negative tests, was in response to the new variant and in line with the Covid elimination policy. 


Continuing, in response to a query by Alderman Hussey, she advised that a paper outlining the strategy had been sent to every MLA and the group had also attempted to contact the Minister for Health.  She advised that the Health Committee at the Assembly had shown an interest and were contacted firstly by Independent SAGE and endorsed the policy and it was her understanding that the Committee had written to the Minister for Health, however no response had been received.  She stated that it was important to note, that in a pandemic situation, one could have arguments and differences of opinion on strategy, but did not doubt the hard work and good faith that has gone into managing this pandemic by the Minister for Health, the Health Service and many others.  She felt that whilst there were differences on the overall strategy and goal, it was important to discuss this without taking away from the successes.  She stated that the roll-out of the vaccine campaign was one of those successes, in terms of pandemic management. 


Continuing, she stated that in terms of how to deal with apathy and complacency, it was a difficult issue as it had gone on for so long.  She felt that if people could not see any end to the pandemic, they could be difficult to turn around.  She stated that having a clear goal of what could be achieved was important.  She believed that there had not been a goal, clear strategy or direction, other than trying not to overstep the capacity of the hospitals.  She stated that moving to zero Covid was a clear goal that people could sign up to and the economy could then re-open but it was not a simple problem.  She referred to the increased take up of the flu vaccine and stated that this was a baseline expectation of how the take up of the Covid vaccine would be and there was probably a higher motivation to receive it.  She stated that everyone had a responsibility to engage in the conversations regarding the vaccine, but there was a group of anti-vaccine campaigners that could not be convinced.  However, it was the larger group of hesitant people that must be considered as they were open to hearing about the facts. 


                        Councillor Harkin thanked Professors Staines and Dolk for clarifying the situation, particularly in relation to a Covid strategy in the UK.  He stated that people were campaigning for that objective.  He expressed dismay at the contribution from the DUP which he believed, called for the border between North and South to be imposed to prevent the infection rate from the South coming to the North.  He noted that people from the area lived in a border county and consideration should be given on how that would disrupt people’s lives.  He stated that there were health workers in Altnagelvin Hospital who lived in Donegal who could be prevented from going to work.   He described the comments as ignorant and unbelievable and that they partly explained how the current situation existed.  He stated that it was clear from the presentation, that the Zero Covid Group had worked in proposing to both the coalition government and the Stormont Executive, that they gave serious consideration to the strategy.  He stated that it was important that Council sends a clear message on the urgency to develop an all-Ireland response.  He noted that a memorandum of understanding was in place which called for an integrated approach from the health service and governments on both sides of the border and this would build on that given the current situation.


                        The Chair thanked the representatives for their presentation and appreciated them taking the time to present to the Committee.


Councillor Harkin proposed, Seconded by Councillor R Barr


Council calls for Stormont Executive and the Dáil Coalition Government to urgently implement an all-island Zero Covid strategy to eliminate community transmission of the virus in order to protect lives, health services and to bring a return to normality.


Alderman Devenney asked on a point of clarity, if Council had previously dealt with a similar proposal.  He referred to the comments made by Councillor Harkin and advised that the DUP would not be taking any lectures from him.  He stated that Members had to make decisions on difficult issues.  He queried comments on current infection rates in this Council area, compared to the Republic of Ireland which had the highest infection rate in the world.  He asked Councillor Harkin for an explanation on that matter.  He advised that the DUP would be abstaining from the vote on the proposal.


Councillor Duffy suggested that Alderman Devenney should be more measured in his comments in terms of infection rates.  She noted that the rates had previously fluctuated between the North and South of Ireland.  In terms of the proposal, she stated that Sinn Féin had always called for an all-Ireland approach.  She commended New Zealand on how they have managed Covid-19.  Unfortunately, Northern Ireland had a five party coalition government and it was not easy, particularly when other parties used cross-community vetoes to prevent health papers being brought forward.  She asked if Councillor Harkin could agree to a minor amendment to the wording of the proposal. Councillor Harkin agreed to the amendment.


Council calls for Stormont Executive and the Dáil Coalition Government to urgently consider an all-island Zero Covid strategy to eliminate community transmission of the virus in order to protect lives, health services and to bring a return to normality.


Councillor Gallagher stated that as the rates are high, it may be useful to check how many people came from Derry airport and travelled to Dublin transmitting the virus along the way.


Alderman Warke proposed an amendment, Seconded by Alderman Devenney


Council calls for Stormont Executive, Dáil, Welsh, Scottish and English Coalition Governments to urgently consider an all-island Zero Covid strategy to eliminate community transmission of the virus in order to protect lives, health services and to bring a return to normality.

Councillor Harkin stated that earlier in the meeting, Alderman Warke had called for the border close between North and South.  However, now he called for an all-island Covid elimination strategy.  He asked if the DUP actually supported a zero Covid strategy for the island of Ireland and for Great Britain.  He stated that the matter had to be taken seriously as people were in hospital, the health service was overwhelmed and asked them to reflect on that. He asked if Alderman Warke would argue with the Conservative Government to implement the strategy.

Alderman Warke stated that he had agreed with the comments made by Alderman Hussey on the matter and also on the border closing, particularly with the high infection rate in the Republic of Ireland.  He felt that all countries within the UK and Ireland should work together to combat Covid-19.

Members were then asked vote on the proposal, the result of which was as follows:

For:-13;          Against:-1;     Abstentions:-0.

The Committee

Recommended        ThatCouncil calls for Stormont Executive, Dáil, Welsh, Scottish and English Coalition Governments to urgently consider an all-island Zero Covid strategy to eliminate community transmission of the virus in order to protect lives, health services and to bring a return to normality.