All people arriving into Northern Ireland should be made to isolate in a quarantine centre and the measure should be put in place urgently, a leading expert has said.
ndependent SAGE member, Professor Martin McKee, has criticised a delay by the Executive to implement strict border measures to stop Covid-19 variants from taking hold in Northern Ireland.
And he said he fears that political sensitivities over borders in Northern Ireland may be a driving factor in the refusal to completely close the border that may ultimately result in more Covid-19 cases here.
It comes just days after the chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, warned that it is “only a matter of time” before the more infectious South African variant arrives in Northern Ireland.
From February 15, all those arriving into England from 33 Covid variant hotspots will have to isolate in a hotel for 10 days.
This is despite the fact that Government advisers have warned that nothing short of quarantining all visitors or closing borders completely will “get close” to excluding any new variants.
Newly released minutes from a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) in January conclude that only a “complete, pre-emptive closure of borders or the mandatory quarantine of all visitors upon arrival in designated facilities, irrespective of testing history, can get close to fully preventing the importation of cases or new variants”.
And last night the Executive Office said no decision has been made yet in relation to putting in tighter border controls in Northern Ireland, despite fears of a vaccine-resistant strain throwing the vaccination programme into chaos.
A spokesman said: “Cross-departmental work is continuing on supported isolation arrangements for international travellers, including the potential use of hotels.”
However, public health expert Prof McKee, said it is crucial for the Executive to act swiftly.
“I would go for a blanket ban that doesn’t limit itself to flights coming directly from countries of concern,” he said.
“These variants don’t just come from countries that we know about, they can happen at any time and many countries aren’t even aware of them until it is too late.
“This should have been done weeks ago and Northern Ireland also needs to be working closely with the authorities in Dublin because so many international arrivals into Northern Ireland have travelled through Dublin first.”
Prof McKee also said it is possible to implement strict border measures that would not disrupt medical or food supplies, as has been claimed is the case by officials.
“You don’t necessarily need individuals to enter with the goods, there are ways of getting around it and we can see from other countries that it can be done, and in fact when it comes to truck drivers, there can be a little bit more leeway because they have been isolated.”
DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley, a member of the Stormont health committee, said he welcomed the fact that work is being done in the background to address borders, but he added: “Speed is of the essence here and we need to make sure that appropriate controls are in place going forward.”
Alliance Party MLA Paula Bradshaw, also a member of the Stormont health committee, said: “As this issue concerns people immediately upon arrival into the UK and Ireland, we need clarity about how exactly this will impact on arrivals in Northern Ireland and how information will be shared to ensure public health authorities in all jurisdictions have all the information they need.”
Yesterday, it emerged that Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 death toll has now reached 2,495 after a further 124 people lost their lives.
The NI Statistics & Research Agency (NISRA) released the latest Covid-19 statistics, which revealed that 124 deaths linked to the virus were reported between January 23 and 29.
According to the figures, there were 78 more deaths reported than the five-year average for the period.
However, the figures have also suggested that the Covid-19 death rate may be beginning to decline from the previous week’s pandemic record high of 182 Covid-19 related deaths. The comparative total number of deaths reported daily by the Department of Health from the beginning of the pandemic up to December 29 was 1,837.
The Department yesterday announced 506 new cases and 16 further deaths.