THE WRONG KEY COULD TURN LOCKDOWN INTO A BREAKDOWN – By Brian Rowan 

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Within hours, we watched the UK Government’s retreat from Thursday’s headlines in Britain; another mess, another mixed message – and something that has the appearance of a briefing that backfired.

The learning from this should be that decisions made in Belfast are better than decisions made in London.

The message has to be consistent; no room for interpretation.

There is no one key that will open this lockdown and nor should there be.

The way out of these restrictions will be – should be – a gradual unpicking of the many locks applied those few weeks ago to keep us safe.

So, Thursday’s decision by the Stormont Executive to extend the restrictions here by a further three weeks is the right one.

We have all seen the slippage – more people on the streets, more difficult to keep distance on pavements and more traffic on the roads.

That won’t have been missed at Executive level and giving an inch, especially on a bank holiday weekend, could easily become a mile with all the dangers associated with that.

So, does Thursday’s Stormont decision mean nothing will change within the next three-week period?

I don’t think that is how we should read the announcement.

Assessing Covid-19 is a work-in-progress; an hour-to-hour – day-to-day thing. It is both work-in-progress and learning-in-progress.

The Executive met twice this week.

Its roadmap on next steps, guided by the latest expert advice, may well be ready to be published next week.

Can there, should there be room for modifications measured against risk?

The answer to that question has to be yes.

So, we wait to see how this will be communicated.

There is something else to be said about Stormont politics at this time.

For all the talk of division and tension and Orange versus Green arguments, this Executive now appears to be on the same page.

Some weeks ago, I wrote on this website that, after three years in a type of limbo, our politics is now more resilient than we think.

This is what we are now seeing in this same-page approach on restrictions and roadmap.

The Executive is leading.

COVID-19 HAS NOT GRANTED FREEDOM TO ANYONE 

In the above tweet, BBC correspondent Julian O’Neill reminds us of the worst-case planning  that had us running for shelter only a few weeks ago.

So far, that emergency facility at Kinnegar in Holywood has not been needed – the lockdown and social-distancing acting as shields as this deadly virus continues on its mission.

It has been interrupted but not stopped in its tracks. It has not gone away – the full extent of its presence in the community, not yet known.

Discipline, not chance, has made things better.

This is why the opening-up of this lockdown needs careful, managed, phased steps and a clear path.

CHURCHES

The churches are waiting on a response to their request for private prayer to be facilitated; that position set out in a statement by leaders earlier this week.

We need to be sure about what keys are turning in what locks; what is absolutely necessary at this time.

An open church – for private prayer – is not, in my opinion, essential at this time.

The decision will be for the Executive and its roadmap will be read for an answer.

GOVERNMENTS 

Last Friday, Dublin set out its phased plan without taking time to share that detail here and, this Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, will outline his government’s thinking.

The advance briefing that caused that excitement in some of the Thursday headlines has had to be pulled back, but when you are explaining, you’re losing.

Just look at the numbers; 30,000-plus deaths across the UK and the actual figure expected to be much higher.

The Johnson government was slow to react to the virus; Labour leader Keir Starmer highlighting this during Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday when he said “that the UK was slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on tracing and slow on the supply of protective equipment”.

There is no room for error on the pace of any exit plan.

RELAXING RESTRICTIONS

Even before Thursday’s Stormont announcement, the predictions here on what would be be possible were measured by caution – not in over-stretching or over-stepping headlines.

On Tuesday, health minister Robin Swann warned of the lockdown debate “getting ahead of itself”.

It is far too early to think about lockdown freedom.

We have escaped the worst of the worst-case scenarios, but the wrong key in the wrong lock could turn this lockdown into a breakdown.

That discipline that has saved lives and saved us from those worst-case scenarios and meant that the emergency mortuary at Kinnegar has not been needed, should not be thrown away or sacrificed.

The virus is still out there, and this, more than anything else, should be both our brake and our guide.


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.

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