The Republic of Ireland’s response to the coronavirus is notable because it appears Ireland has managed to limit the spread of COVID-19, and the number of deaths, much more effectively than its closest neighbour, the UK.
Making direct comparisons between nations’ responses is complicated by a myriad of external factors: climate, population density, median population age, cultural differences, and GDP all make a difference. There may well be no one size fits all approach to handling a pandemic. However, with the geographical proximity, and economic and cultural similarities shared by the UK and Ireland, it is possible perhaps to make some more meaningful comparisons of how the two governments handled the outbreak.
Ireland’s and The UK’s coronavirus responses, and the outcomes, have been very different. With 248000 confirmed cases and over 35000 deaths, both the toll and the rate of deaths in England was much higher. Ireland, however, has so far managed to limit total cases to 24,315 with 1,571 deaths. That leaves the UK’s death rate per infection at 14%, vs 6% in Ireland.
These stark figures have prompted tough questions in the UK about how exactly Ireland managed to contain the virus so much more effectively. Whereas the UK government dragged their feet, Ireland’s took early, proactive steps to build up its healthcare system, ban gatherings and implement social-distancing.
Ireland banned mass gatherings, shut down schools, and encouraged people to work from home from March 12. Both countries issued lockdown orders at roughly the same time, England the 23 March and Ireland the day after. Ireland’s lockdown was much stricter than the UK’s however, instructing citizens at first that they would need to stay indoors for two weeks, with only limited visits per household for shopping allowed. This is in line with the lockdown conditions applied in Italy and eventually in Spain. Ireland’s restrictions have continued to be more stringent than those in the UK during the past 8 weeks.
It is argued that Ireland’s decisive action prevented a sharp surge in COVID-19 patients, which in turn eased the load on hospitals, allowing more people to recover. Ireland’s first coronavirus arrived with a traveller from Italy on February 29, and the first instance of community spread was discovered on March 5.
Only a few days later, on March 9, Ireland announced that its St. Patrick’s Day festival, one of the biggest days in the calendar in Ireland, would not be taking place this year. Visits to hospitals and long term care settings were restricted by government measures. But most importantly, at this early stage Ireland began to build up its contact tracing, surveillance and testing programs.
Acting on scientific advice, and believing that some children can be carriers of the virus without displaying symptoms, on March 12 Ireland closed all schools, colleges, and childcare. Pubs shut their doors on March 15. However, not until the country had 1,329 cases and seven deaths was an official stay-at-home order issued, on March 24.
Although the timing is similar to the UK, the number underlying these decisions were very different. On March 23rd, when Boris Johnson announced the UK lockdown, UK cases stood at 13,063 and with 422 deaths.
With a significantly lower number of cases and hospitalisations, Ireland did not face the same scramble for medical equipment. Even without significant stockpiles, their early response meant they had plenty of basics like surgical masks, face masks, nitrile exam gloves, infrared temperature scanners, and medical gloves.
More specialised N95 masks, KN95 masks, FFP2 masks, face shields and medical protective gear were reserved for healthcare and key workers, meaning fewer hospital staff were infected, and so were able to continue working and treating patients. There was also no shortage of ventilators, as in the UK and Europe.
Ireland has a young population and is predominantly rural, lacking the many large urban centres found across the UK and many of its European counterparts, which are perfect breeding grounds for a pandemic. Only 13% of the population is over 65, and about 69% of the population live in non-urban areas.
This would of course affect both the spread and rates of mortality, but it seems undeniable their fast reactions prevented a much worse outcome. Ireland is now entering a phase1 of a 5 phase plan to emerge from lockdown.
In Germany and other countries who have fared relatively well, quick reactions, strict social-distancing measures, and mass testing have been shown to be effective. Ireland seems to have excelled in the first two categories. In terms of testing, Ireland still has work to do, but still seem to be outperforming their closest neighbours in the UK on this front too.