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Keeping an eye on Éire: why is COVID-19’s impact on the UK twice that of the Emerald Isle?

Written by Comment, Science

As of 11 April 2020, the Republic of Ireland has recorded only 6.5 deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000, whilst the figure for the UK is almost double at 14.81 deaths per 100,000. This has stimulated a debate between experts who question the disparity between neighbouring nations.

The Republic of Ireland has recorded 6.5 deaths per 100,000 compared to 14.81 in the UK

Equipment seems unlikely to be the straightforward answer to this gap; though the UK currently possesses 6.6 ICU beds per 100,000, the Republic of Ireland holds the only slightly lower 6.5 beds per 100,000. Without massive difference from this angle, experts have had to look further afield for convincing explanation.

One crucial factor is timing. It is important to note that Ireland recorded its first case of COVID-19 on 27 February 2020; this places it almost a month ‘behind’ the UK, where the first recorded case was at the end of January. This places Ireland slightly further away from the peak on those notorious bell curves and partly suggests (as the UK was said to have been two weeks behind Italy) a time lag on the spread of the disease.

Professor Sheila Bird, formerly programme leader at the MRC Biostatistics Unit also points to population density as another explanation. The UK’s population is “83 per cent urban” compared to the “63 per cent” for Ireland. The logic of this is that a population in closer proximity is naturally at a higher risk of higher rates of community transmission. This is a point which London may be used as a case study to demonstrate. With an estimated population of 9.3 million, the city accounts for over a quarter of the country’s deaths, standing at 3071 as of 14 April 2020 compared to the overall 12,107 tracked across the nation. This point of urbanisation should also be linked to population age. Where 18% of the UK’s population is over-65, Ireland’s is only 13%. A higher proportion of older people implies a greater population with compromised immune systems, and therefore a population more susceptible to the virus.

Though the first case was recorded a month later, Ireland’s Taoiseach closed schools and public facilities over 10 days earlier than the UK government

Credit should also be given to the fast reaction of Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in policy. Though recording their first case almost a month later, the Republic ordered the closure of schools and public facilities from as early as 12 March, a move Prime Minister Boris Johnson waited until 23 March to enact.

One should always be cautious that there are human lives behind these figures and not get carried away from the fact that their purpose is to ensure each nation can learn from one another.

There is crucial point to be made for the purpose of these comparisons. It is all too easy for this to become an international game of one-upmanship, arguing for the better competency of this nation or another based upon the speed, severity, and effectiveness of COVID-19 policy. One should always be cautious that there are human lives behind these figures and not allow themselves to be carried away from the fact that their purpose is to ensure each nation can learn from another in order to develop the best method to help protect lives from the virus. The ultimate goal is, and should be, for governments to work in a clearer direction towards policy which may best protect their most vulnerable people, guided by a high international standard.

Last modified: 13th May 2020

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