As the British government pursued “herd immunity”, its Irish counterpart imposed an early lockdown to save lives.
A sea of tweed-clad punters, packed together to watch horses hurtle around a track, their minds set on winning a bet, is the image Irish people now conjure up to scare themselves into socially distancing. We call it the “Cheltenham Effect”.
While Ireland was already under partial lockdown, we watched the footage streaming in of 60,000 racegoers in attendance each day in the English countryside. Thousands of these gamblers were Irish people who would be on their way back soon. “It’s coming home,” Paddy Power ads promised.
Cheltenham works as a warning because as of 13 April, Ireland has recorded 365 deaths from the virus and the UK has recorded 11,329. Even allowing for the population difference, Ireland having 4.9 million people and the UK 66.65 million, the death rate per capita in the UK is still twice that in Ireland.
A series of tweets shared by tens of thousands of people last week drew attention to the disparity. Dr Elaine Doyle, a writer and researcher, highlighted that at the start of this pandemic the Irish and British health systems had almost the same number of intensive care beds per head. Why was the UK’s closest neighbour, starting with almost the exact same capacity, experiencing “a wildly different outcome”?
The obvious answer is timing. On 3 March, exactly a week before the Cheltenham races began and the same day Boris Johnson described shaking patients’ hands, Prince William was standing with a pint of Guinness in the sky-high Gravity Bar overlooking Dublin, joking in front of Irish first responders about the royal couple “spreading” the virus and suggesting that the outbreak may have been “hyped up” by the media.
UK health officials had already estimated that one in every hundred people infected would likely die. The next day, the British airline Flybe collapsed and Italy ordered the closure of all schools.
That week the UK confirmed its first death. There were more than 80 confirmed cases in Britain at that point and a handful in Ireland. Both the Cheltenham races and the St Patrick’s Day parade were still due to take place. “We’re pleased to hear the messages the government has put out suggesting there will be no immediate change to business as usual,” Ian Renton, the regional director of the Jockey Club, said of Cheltenham. “On that basis we’re proceeding.”
On 9 March, the Irish government announced that the St Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland would be cancelled. The following day, with the UK government still betting on “herd immunity”, the first races at Cheltenham began. That weekend most pubs in Ireland had already closed out of respect for the new protective measures. When footage was shared online of stag party groups parading around in fake hazmat suits, and several packed establishments in Temple Bar, an area of Dublin popular with tourists, #shutthepubs started trending and people called on the government to make closures official. That same weekend, sold-out concerts and sports matches were still taking place in the UK. These super-spreader events surely had an impact on the surge last week of people hospitalised in Britain, with a new daily peak of 980 deaths.
The Irish government’s previous reluctance to lose out on revenue from the St Patrick’s Day parade, or to abandon prime minister Leo Varadkar’s US trip (meaning he eventually announced school closures from Washington, DC), created a sense of a government finally acting in the public interest. We joked that Ireland had officially changed policy from “it’ll be grand” to “alright, fair enough”.
The British government, by comparison, had promoted the notion that the virus spreading quickly could be beneficial. While Varadkar declared that “acting together, as one nation, we can save many lives”, Boris Johnson warned that “many more families are going to lose loved ones”. By St Patrick’s Day on 17 March, the release of the Imperial College report modelling the sheer number of potential fatalities resulted in a dramatic U-turn and the announcement of a lockdown on 23 March, only three days after school closures had been imposed.
In those first few critical weeks it felt like people just across the water inhabited a different reality. My brother, who lives in London, thought I was joking when I first messaged him about Irish pubs shutting down. Everyone over there was still going out to work and to clubs. Pubs were advertising quarantine beer garden parties. It was as if they were living a week in the past. During pandemics, a week can make a crucial difference.
Other factors are likely contributing to the disparity between Ireland and the UK: from bigger transport hubs in cities such as London, to greater urban population density, and a higher proportion of over-65s. But it’s unquestionable that the advice the Irish population received, even from a caretaker government that had haemorrhaged votes at the recent general election and had no real mandate, was more consistent than that of the errant UK government.
Ireland was never given the impression that it could bluster through a pandemic with Blitz spirit or “take it on the chin”, as Johnson suggested Britain could do. When the UK was still pursuing herd immunity, some people in Ireland drew parallels with the 1845-52 famine, recalling how British politicians had prioritised the economy over human life before. British policy still affects countless Irish families. Thousands of people on the front line, risking their lives in the UK, are Irish.
An Irish health worker with experience of both UK and Irish hospitals, currently working in Dublin, was surprised at how “complacent” the British government’s response had been. She said that “despite the state of the health service” in Ireland they managed to prepare surprisingly well, “which is definitely not what the UK government did”.
Even as cases soared and deaths began to mount, the indecisive British government seemed to weigh economic profits against lives. Ireland shut its pubs, clubs and even hotel bars before St Patrick’s Day, at huge economic cost. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Wetherspoons founder and vehement Brexiteer, Tim Martin, claimed that people continuing to drink at his establishments represented the “robust instincts of the [British] nation”. Martin, who was estimated in 2019 to be worth £448m, later sought to withhold payments to both suppliers and staff until pubs were allowed to reopen.
An Irishman living in London and working in the medical research industry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the outbreak had been discussed within the UK’s scientific community as early as last December. “The government definitely would have known,” he said. “Yet there was no central plan, they were making it up on the hoof.”
The lack of preparation was even more galling to him in view of Exercise Cygnus, a test of pandemic preparedness carried out in 2016 by the UK government that was scathing of the lack of resources available.
“The Tories have destroyed this country, every decent thing about it,” he said. “They defunded the NHS for the last 11 years and Boris lied about the £350m per week. I don’t trust a word he says.”
Was there political pressure to avoid going into lockdown, to let sports matches and races go ahead, he wondered, and if so who is responsible? These are the questions he would ask officials if he had the chance. “To let Cheltenham go ahead was prioritising money over the health of the nation,” he said.
The total number of deaths in Ireland and the UK is likely higher than official figures show, but particularly so in the case of Britain, where for so long only people hospitalised were tested. Ireland set an ambitious target of conducting at least 15,000 tests a day, and opened test centres at Croke Park, its largest stadium.
But the country is falling far short of that. People are waiting weeks for test results. The caretaker Fine Gael government, which has held power for nearly a decade, has long presided over a health crisis. A new surge of cases could quickly overwhelm the system. But Ireland is still testing at around double the rate of the UK, even if it is dependent on the help of other countries, with hundreds of test results sent to German labs. The UK meanwhile failed to join the EU’s joint procurement plan for life-saving ventilators, even after being invited to do so.
Britain’s exceptionalist response to the pandemic could inevitably threaten Ireland’s ability to contain the outbreak. The reality of this has already led to a new all-island agreement, allowing Ireland and Northern Ireland to coordinate their responses.
The EU used to be a scapegoat for all the UK’s woes. The current excuse is that Johnson listened to the advice of his experts and that they got it wrong. “First of all, they told us during Brexit not to listen to experts,” the Irish researcher in London recalled. “Now they will try to shift the blame to the scientific community.”