Tonight, at midnight the Republic of Ireland will enter an extensive six-week ‘Level 5’ lockdown in an effort to combat the spread of Coronavirus. This follows tough measures earlier this year aimed at curbing infections. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is also embarking on an effort to reduce the number of infections, introducing a four-week circuit breaker. However, both lockdowns have not been created equally, as the strictness of the rules differ sharply. Politicians have attempted to negotiate an Ireland wide effort to tackle the virus across both sides of the border, yet whether this will be effective remains to be seen. What will the new restrictions mean for the Irish public?
In Northern Ireland, the current circuit breaker measures which came into effect on the 16th of October mean that indoor and outdoor events are restricted to up to 15 people, and the half term has been extended to two weeks. Bars and restaurants are closed, indoor sports cannot take place, and close-contact services such as hairdressing are also prohibited. Different households are forbidden from mixing in private homes but may still meet outside. University learning has been advised to take place online, and those who can work from home should.
Northern Ireland had initially escaped the worst of the UK’s pandemic, owing in part due to a more rural population and the fact that the Republic of Ireland had locked down much earlier, meaning that infections from across the border were less likely. However, in recent weeks it has seen a surge of cases, with 13,594 new cases recorded. As the total number of cases across Northern Ireland is 28,953 this represents a significant surge, thus prompting the new measures. The opening of universities has borne a lot of the blame for the surge, as students in Northern Ireland often go home at the weekend and are thus mingling with many groups, both on campus and in their hometowns.
The potential efficacy of this plan hinges on limiting close contact in non-essential indoor settings, where many of the infections occur. Yet if churches, offices, and universities continue to operate as normal, the effectiveness of the plan may be called into question. The Republic of Ireland has opted for the route of much harsher restrictions including the closure of gyms, churches, and non-essential shops. In addition to this, a travel restriction will be imposed meaning that you may travel no further than three miles (five kilometres) to exercise. This differs from Northern Ireland where unnecessary travel is advised against, but no specific restrictions are being imposed. Citizens of the Republic of Ireland will thus only be able to leave their house for essential grocery trips and exercise, and this will be enforced by the police carrying out random vehicle checks.
The disparity in the lockdown rules between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has not been without controversy, with RoI’s retail groups questioning the wisdom of closing ‘non-essential’ shops as those across the border continue to trade unhindered. Retail Excellence the largest body representing retailers in the Republic of Ireland has expressed grave concerns about shops closing for the next six weeks, in the busiest trading period. Retail Express’s Managing Director has stated that non-essential businesses generate 70% of their annual turnover in this quarter, with restrictions inevitably condemning many businesses to insolvency. He further argues that the safety measures which businesses have already invested in are adequate, and that no other European country has taken such a drastic step of shutting businesses in this way. There is also the looming possibility of a shopping frenzy as businesses reopen in the weeks leading up to Christmas, perhaps echoing the scenes of chaos the UK has seen as pubs close at 10PM.
In Northern Ireland some have voiced the opposing opinion, with business leaders fearing that they could be subject to harsher further restrictions down the line and thus would prefer to take the pain now. Many are demanding clarity, stating that extending the lockdown or enacting another later on in the year, or in 2021 will be economically unfeasible. Colin Neill chief executive of Hospitality Ulster expressed the frustrations of many, stating ‘It is a huge concern of ours we go for another lockdown or just extend this one. Just continuously locking down is not going to solve this because we are not being clever.’
The message from the government of the Republic of Ireland remains sombre. Taoiseach Micháel Martin has stated that the hardship must be endured to ensure that the nation can have some kind of Christmas, even if it is one unlike all others that have preceded it. The Pandemic Unemployment Payment will also now be restored to the higher level of €350 a week for those earning €400. With tens of thousands of retail jobs hanging in the balance, it will be an uncertain run up to Christmas for many. We can only hope that the measures which have been put in place across both Northern and Southern Ireland yield the desired results, and 2021 will be a better year for both businesses and the public.