UK circuit breakers

Northern Ireland leads the way with four-week “circuit-breaker” lockdown

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.

— 3 minute read — by Maggie Gannon

Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster has taken action to stunt a long and sustained rise in coronavirus cases by instigating a four-week “circuit breaker” lockdown. For some, this lockdown has long been inevitable. Indeed, some fear these restrictions have come too late. Others worry that there has been little regard for small businesses, their owners and employees, and others cite negative implications of past lockdowns on public mental health. Since this conference, where Foster announced the “circuit-breaker” would come into action on 16th October, policy shifts have also been seen in the rest of the country with a complicated landscape of tier lists, lockdowns and alert systems which will together determine how the next weeks and months look for the UK. 

Foster’s speech highlighted the closures across many sectors, with hospitality closing altogether apart from deliveries and takeaways, and supermarkets and off-licence stores barred from selling alcohol beyond 8pm. These closures also include beauty and non-essential health services. Gyms however remain open for individual use, as well as places of worship. Foster, who is leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) stressed that smaller business will be promised financial support, stating the decision has “not been taken lightly”.

To the concern of some parents, schools will be closed for a shorter duration of two weeks, while universities are encouraged to provide distanced and remote learning. Social bubbles can include up to ten people from just two households.

The reaction to the briefing included concerns about the longevity of the “circuit-breaker” with critics suggesting measures might extend past the four-week point and risk beginning an inescapable cycle of lockdowns where the public health damage exceeds the possible damage of coronavirus. Deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill refused to rule out any extensions, despite commenting that the number of cases seemed to be “moving in the right direction”. O’Neill is one of many politicians pushing to “avoid a cycle of lockdowns”, with one alternative strategy being the creation of a large-scale effective track and trace system.

This backdrop of coronavirus policy debate has exposed some major political divisions in Northern Ireland. Senior DUP figure Edwin Poots, for example, argued that “there is a difference [in COVID-19 infection rate] between nationalist areas and unionist areas”, triggering huge backlash and suggestions that he was trying to sectarianise a universal issue. Poots has defended his remarks, arguing that the new restrictions were excessive and damaging to the economy.  

When looking at the wider image of the rest of the UK, it appears there is not one clear-cut method to tackle the virus, with governments responding to crises as they happen and acting almost on a day-to-day basis. Starting with the most severe restrictions perhaps, the devolved Welsh administration announced a two-week “fire-break” lockdown beginning on 24th October. New restrictions, including a ban on the sale of “non-essential” items in supermarkets and the closure of gyms has led to an intense debate reminiscent of that in March, when the importance of items and activities, varying from person to person, was covered with a blanket approach. contrast to the this, England and Scotland seem to follow a more deliberate, ranked approach, in which areas are categorised depending on the rate of infection. Although England’s tier system has been in action for a few weeks now, with varying counties and cities moving up and down the ladder, Scotland’s new five-level alert system is still in its infancy.

Although affected citizens may be feeling a slight sense of  déjà-vu in the current circumstances, it appears the UK’s next months will not be one sole venture as much as spring was; instead, smaller governments – devolved cities and regional administrations – will have the power to dictate the next steps at a more localised scale.