Coronavirus pandemic updates
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Belfast has become the UK’s most Covid-infected city after the virus ripped through the most impoverished neighbourhoods of Northern Ireland’s capital in the weeks after large gatherings for the Euro 2020 football final and annual loyalist celebrations.
Despite having tighter restrictions than in the rest of the country, Belfast’s weekly infection rate has topped 800 per 100,000 in recent days — the highest in the 16-month pandemic and about double the UK average.
Some postcodes, including parts of the loyalist Shankill Road and republican Falls Road, have infection rates above 1,000 per 100,000, which puts them on a par with England’s North East Covid epicentre.
“It’s not going in the right direction,” said Dr Ultan Power, a respiratory virus specialist at Queen’s University Belfast, who predicted it would be “another week or two” before there was a “clear indication” of the same kind of turnround seen in Scotland and parts of England.
Wednesday’s case tally for Northern Ireland was 1,600, higher than the 1,473 reported on Tuesday and more than double Monday’s number of 639. “The alarming increase in case numbers in recent days and weeks should serve as a clear warning that this pandemic is far from over,” Robin Swann, the region’s health minister, said on Wednesday as he urged people to use a self tracing app to help limit the spread. He said concerns about a “pingdemic” from the app “trivialise the very real dangers that we collectively still face from Covid-19”.
Widespread vaccination among the most vulnerable means deaths and hospitalisations are far lower than in previous Covid waves, but Belfast’s biggest health trust still had to issue an appeal last weekend for help from off-duty nursing staff. The Belfast Trust has begun cancelling operations and opened up new beds as bosses brace for admissions to increase.
“People seem to have had their freedom day well before freedom day,” said Dr Michael McKenna, who has a general practice on the Falls Road. He said people were less diligent with mask wearing and hand sanitising and were mingling in greater numbers during a period when he has sent more patients to hospital than at any time in the pandemic.
“The application of the rules is not as strict as you’d like it to be in some places,” McKenna said.
This was evident on the streets of Belfast on Thursday. Staff and customers were maskless in more than a dozen city centre shops and cafés, including a chemist. It was similar on the Shankill Road. Some adults on buses, and bus drivers on Belfast’s distinctive pink double deckers, also went maskless in breach of Northern Ireland’s rules.
Large gatherings of locals supporting Italy against England in the Euros final also contributed to rising case numbers in his area, McKenna said, adding that surges in neighbouring loyalist areas were probably partly triggered by gatherings around July 11 and July 12 — the culmination of loyalists’ annual marching and bonfire season.
“Substantial gatherings will have had a significant impact on transmission of the virus,” Power said.
Carál Ní Chuilín, a Sinn Féin Stormont representative whose North Belfast area has been badly affected by the latest surge, said poverty was also a major contributor. “Those areas are really deprived communities, there’s always been a strong link between poverty and ill health and Covid has exacerbated that situation,” she said.
Another factor is the slowing take-up of vaccines. While Northern Ireland’s programme started strongly, it now has the lowest percentage of fully vaccinated people of any UK nation. In England, the government and experts are fretting about vaccine hesitancy that meant just 66 per cent of 18 to 29s had had their first jab by July 22. In Northern Ireland, where vaccines were freely available to the youngest cohort sooner, less than 59 per cent of 18 to 29s had had their first shot by July 28.
There were long queues at a walk-in vaccination centre on Thursday but anti-vaccine signs featured prominently at a protest against Covid measures in Belfast last weekend.
McKenna said the region’s fundamentalist “belief set” was a complicating factor. Jim Wells, a 64-year-old former health minister and current Stormont representative for the Democratic Unionist party, has become the posterboy for vaccine opposition after telling a popular radio show that he would not take the jabs currently on offer because they were tested on stem cells from an aborted baby.
“This week I’ve been called a dinosaur, a bigot, a monster,” Wells told the Financial Times. “I’m not saying anybody should follow my lead or step back from having a vaccine, all I’m saying is that I can’t be associated with abortion”.
He said others who share his views are petitioning Northern Ireland’s government to offer a synthetically developed vaccine instead.
Northern Ireland does not publish data about the vaccine status of those infected. Almost 30 per cent of the region’s cases in the last week were among under 19s, the group least likely to be vaccinated, while another 44 per cent were among 20 to 39s, a group more likely to feel that their youth makes them less vulnerable to severe Covid.
“I’d be more concerned about the young people who feel invincible,” Power said. “People are really not making sensible choices in terms of balancing the risk of getting infected versus the risk of getting the vaccine.”
Ní Chuilín said the public messaging around vaccines needed to be “stronger”. Belfast’s health authorities are hoping to increase take up by rolling out mobile clinics.
Despite the rising cases, Northern Ireland went ahead with the next phase of its reopening plan on Tuesday, including allowing theatres and indoor music venues to reopen with advance booking only, measures that Power said would give the virus further opportunity to spread.
Ní Chuilín said she was not seeing any community pushback. “There’s a lot of loyalty to hospitality and theatres and things like that,” she said.