'Absolute madness to lift travel restrictions in Northern Ireland during pandemic', public health expert warns

A passenger travelling to Northern Ireland from England during the pandemic. Credit: UTV

A leading public health expert has said “it is absolute madness to lift travel restrictions in Northern Ireland,” during the coronavirus pandemic.

Professor Gabriel Scally, a visiting professor of Public Health at the University of Bristol and a member of the Independent SAGE group told UTV News that “people had forgotten how the cases had got to Ireland in the first place.”

“The first cases came from northern Italy. In fact, the very first case to the North traveled via Dublin,” Professor Scally said.

On Thursday, the Executive agreed that people arriving in Northern Ireland from more than 50 countries including France and Spain would now no longer be required to quarantine.

Previously, anyone entering Northern Ireland from outside the Common Travel Area had to self-isolate for 14 days.

People arriving in NI from more than 50 countries including France and Spain are no longer required to quarantine. Credit: UTV

“Once you open the door to people travelling back and forwards, you open the door to the virus, and that’s one of the discussions we have to have after everything everyone has gone through.

All the sacrifices that have been made, all the lives lost and the hard work to get it so close to zero, it is unwise in the extreme to open up to international travel like this.

Professor Gabriel Scally

“We know the virus is out of control in many parts of the world but yet we have flights every day arriving from the United States into Dublin and people travelling north, no doubt, or traveling via Heathrow.

“That issue of international travel, I would have it top of my agenda for a north south dialogue because neither part of the island can do it alone."

Professor Scally acknowledged that there was now a very real challenge for governments to balance the needs of an economy and the health of a nation.

"The great thing is that if we can keep the numbers way down, the way they are heading and restrict travel, well we can relax the economy in Ireland on the island. It's not to say that people can not come and go but there would have to proper quarantine of people staying in hotels and being tested to prevent new cases coming in.

"Whats more instead of people spending their pounds or euros wherever they want to go, spend them at home and that would be a real boost to the economy, in the North and the South.

Professor Scally said that people would have to prepare for the idea of localised lockdowns across the island in the coming months.

"One of the key things moving forward is finding cases and making sure that is a well oiled machine because there will be minor outbreaks but are ability to control them is really important.

"We need to prepare people for what might be a bumpy road. Realistically, it is very likely increasingly so as we head into the winter, we need to work out what would we do if there was a surge in cases.

"Going to this pandemic we were not well prepared and there were serious cases but that is in the past now. Lets get everything set properly for us to have an enjoyable Covid free summer and getting back to life as normal in the summer and we can only do that if we get down to zero cases."

Meanwhile, the Department of Health has said no further deaths were recorded with Covid-19 in Northern Ireland in the previous 24 hours, leaving the total number of people who have died at 554.

However, another four positive cases have been recorded since Thursday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in Northern Ireland to 5,772.

The deaths which have occurred in Northern Ireland's care homes and hospices have involved 80 separate establishments. Credit: UTV

It comes as new figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) show well over a third of coronavirus related deaths are occurring in Northern Ireland's care homes.

It said of the 839 deaths it has recorded up to July 3, 437 deaths (52.1%) took place in hospital, 345 (41.1%) in care homes, 49 (5.8%) at residential addresses or other locations and eight (1.0%) in hospices.

The deaths which happened in care homes and hospices involved 80 separate establishments.

Comparatively the total number of deaths reported by the Department of Health to July 3 was 554.

NISRA figures are based on information entered on death certificates, while the department of health figures report deaths of patients who had tested positive for the virus.