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Finn McRedmond: Experience of pandemic in Dublin and London worlds apart

Both countries diverged when it came to adopting policies on Covid

I have spent almost the entirety of the pandemic in London. And though the vertiginous changes in Irish and UK Covid policy over the past 18 months are easy to track through the news, a recent trip back to Dublin offered a fresh perspective.

The atmosphere on the streets is markedly different. And the day-to-day experience of life amid a pandemic worlds apart.

Ireland is more cautious than the United Kingdom. In March 2020, then taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced lockdown, the closure of schools and the cancellation of St Patrick’s Day parades on the same day that tens of thousands of punters descended on the west of England for the annual Cheltenham Festival.

And the approaches have been no less divergent since, though the fear and anxiety that plagued the public mood on both sides of the Irish sea has morphed into a listless boredom.


Remarks from Boris Johnson and Varadkar, at different stages of the crisis, may shed some light on this divergence

England has been largely restriction free for some time, while the current Taoiseach Micheál Martin has announced a delay – or perhaps, a tweak – to the plans to fully reopen the Irish economy this month.

Both countries are now approaching another critical juncture. This time it is rising hospitalisation rates.

In keeping with the trend that prevailed throughout the pandemic, the two countries are not moving in tandem. Ireland has set out its stall on delaying the easing of some restrictions. The UK is still mulling the reintroduction of some restrictions (a mask mandate, stronger encouragement to work from home) to ameliorate a difficult winter.

Remarks from Boris Johnson and Varadkar, at different stages of the crisis, may shed some light on this divergence. In September 2020, when Johnson was allegedly trying to stave off a looming second lockdown, he said the UK differs from the rest of the world because “our country is a freedom-loving country”.

There has been no shortage of polling to show he is not necessarily right. Ipsos Mori found in July that the majority of Britons supported extending certain restrictions for example. And in early 2020 the government made the calculation that entering lockdown too early would be counterproductive, since public compliance would wane rapidly. That again appeared to be a mistaken assessment.

As science editor Tom Chivers wrote in UnHerd “nonetheless [the UK government] based highly counter-intuitive policy decisions . . . on this apparently unevidenced belief”.

Freedom-loving nature

But even if Johnson’s claims about Britain’s rebellious and freedom-loving nature were wrong, he derives much of his political cachet from the fact that he believes they are right. That belief has proven itself to be an important and guiding instinct in his pandemic management.

Meanwhile, in September this year Varadkar made similar off-the-cuff assessments.

Speaking about the ongoing restrictions on the entertainment industry, the Tánaiste said Britain was not a good model for Ireland: “. . . I’m pretty sure that if we had the numbers of deaths and hospitalisations . . . there would be a reaction from the Irish people that would be different to the reaction that we’re currently seeing in Britain.”

Thanks to proportional representation, with a Coalition Government, and the length of time it took to establish it, Ireland spends more time balancing competing sensibilities

As with Johnson, this claim is evidence that assumptions made about public behaviour informed much of Ireland’s policy too. These perceived cultural differences tell us a lot about why both nations opted for such different tactics. But there is more to it.

The UK’s early successes in its vaccine roll out left it in a different psychological place to Ireland in the first half of this year. And the notion of British exceptionalism peddled by Johnson was proven in that instance to be right.

As vaccine numbers ticked up in the UK, radically changing the atmosphere, it became politically harder to justify keeping restrictions in place.

Confident administration

And the structure of government matters too. Johnson has a sizeable majority, and a confident administration because of it. The opposition was consistently weak. Any pressure he faced came from his own MPs (namely the Covid Recovery Group), who only argued for more, not less, freedom.

Meanwhile, thanks to proportional representation, with a Coalition Government, and the length of time it took to establish that Government, Ireland spends more time balancing competing sensibilities. That kind of climate does not foster boldness, but naturally encourages moderation and cautious centrism. It is simply not within the political nature of Ireland to operate with the same buccaneering appeals to libertarianism.

And we cannot omit the culture war element. Ireland took many of its cues from the EU, indicating an increasing psychological distance from its closest neighbour post Brexit.

Meanwhile, the UK under Johnson is happy to shirk the trends of other nations – exactly how much of that is due to a desire to prove the benefits of Brexit is up for debate, but the answer is probably not zero. And Johnson, we should not forget, has defined much of his career on his maverick sensibilities.

There are endless value judgments to be made about the competing approaches: how many deaths are acceptable, who will shoulder the cost of stringent restrictions, what the payoffs are and what kind of political landscape we want to endorse. But watching Ireland and the UK shows us that personality, domestic politics and national psyche are the best indicators of what direction a nation might take in a crisis.