Statement from the Ard Comhairle of the Workers’ Party

The Irish government recently announced a staggered end to the Covid-19 movement restrictions which have been in place since March, including a far speedier-than-planned exit from lockdown. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, continues to follow the Tory government’s attempts to end the lockdown phase as quickly as possible.

There have been many differences between the two jurisdictions in the affects of Covid-19 and the state response to the virus, though as of mid-June the number of deaths as a proportion of the population is roughly the same in both. While Ireland’s rate of contraction of the virus, and deaths resulting from the virus, has been lower than some of the worst-affected countries, intensive care beds for severe cases remain in short supply. Meanwhile, latest WHO evidence suggests that most people who contract the virus do not retain antibodies after they have recovered, meaning they may well contract the virus a second time. A vaccine is not on the immediate horizon. 

All of this means that, far from a smooth, natural three month transition period, there is little guarantee that, when restrictions ease, the virus won’t increase rapidly again. The government’s trajectory, however, assumes a natural and gradual easing of the virus as restrictions are lifted.

With this in mind, the Workers’ Party proposes the following, in order to facilitate an end to the lockdown with greatly enhanced safety.

1.The establishment of an all-island North/South Covid19 Implementation Body (and future pandemics), by agreeing a united approach to gradually lifting restrictions, with all measures to be legally enforceable across the entire island.

The comparatively beneficial situation of Ireland being a small island with a low-density population is one that gives us an advantage in planning a response to global pandemics. However, this ability to plan is somewhat hindered by the fact that there are two jurisdictions on this small island, following two different plans and taking two different sets of scientific advice.

This can be easily remedied by bodies that already exist for North/South co-operation. The North/South Ministerial Council, established under Strand Two of the Good Friday Agreement (1998), already allows for co-operation in areas of Health. However, this co-operation is specifically identified as an area where the implementation is to be carried out separately. There also exist six all-island implementation bodies which are budgeted, staffed and implement co-operative decisions centrally.

The separate implementation of public health in this scenario is, as identified above, a public danger. The Northern Ireland Executive and Irish Government should therefore use the powers of review under the St. Andrews Agreement (2007) to move health co-operation as it relates to responding to pandemics from being separately implemented and create a properly funded and staffed implementation body. This body would be able to more effectively operate an all-island Track and Trace system to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic than relying on the sharing of information between the two jurisdictions which is open to the usual faults of movement of information between two bodies (lost emails, additional time required etc.).

This body should prioritise agreement on the following:

  • A unified set of infection prevention protocols for nursing homes, hospitals and healthcare;
  • The establishment of a single contact Track and Trace system, including the roll-out of the same technology across the entire island, and integrated staffing and management of contact tracing and tracking to ensure the swiftest possible reaction to cross-border transmission of new cases;
  • The adoption of common quarantine procedures for those enterring into the island of Ireland.  

2. The implementation of a national plan for mask production during the remaining phase of the lockdown, to be accompanied by mandatory mask use as the lockdown ends;

3. Mandatory use of tracking technology by all individuals moving more than twenty kilometres beyond their homes. This tracking technology, even if procured from a private company, must be open-source, owned, controlled and operated transparently by the state, and its function defined and limited in law. A sunset clause should be included in any legislation, to make clear that the operation of tracking technology would become unlawful after six consecutive months of a recorded R of less than 1 within the island of Ireland. It would become lawful again if R rises above 1.

4. Mandatory home-based quarantine arrangements for all individuals travelling into the island of Ireland for an extended period as restrictions begin to be lifted. Necessary state supports should be established to facilitate this, including the provision by the state of suitable accommodation for those living in overcrowded housing, making use of empty hotels and other vacant accommodation as necessary.  

5. Adoption of stronger legislation guaranteeing the workplace safety of workers, including;

  • Ensuring that the workplace Covid19 health & safety representatives, provided for under current legislation, are elected by workers rather than appointed by management, and is given the full whistleblowers protection under the law.
  • Greatly enhanced funding, staffing and power for the Health & Safety Authority, to inspect workplaces and ensure compliance with Covid19 social distancing guidelines.