COVID-19: How did Ireland find itself with the highest infection rate in the world?

“The situation is the most serious that it’s been since the start of the pandemic in Ireland.”

Those are not my words. They are the words of Dr Gabrielle Colleran, vice president of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association.

In the space of six weeks, the country has gone from having the lowest COVID infection rate in the EU to having the highest infection rate in the world.

The almost vertical line on the global chart sent shock waves across the island, prompting debate about what went wrong.

The Irish government blames the arrival of the highly contagious UK variant but the Irishman heading the World Health Organisation disagrees.

Executive director Dr Mike Ryan said: “My own country… Ireland, has suffered one of the most acute increases in disease incidence in any country in the world and not due to the variant let me add, but due to increased social mixing and reduction of physical distancing.”

“New variant strains have not been the driver of new transmission,” he added.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin has defended the decision to lift the lockdown in December and rejected claims the government sent mixed messages by promising a “meaningful Christmas”.

With hospital admissions having doubled since the first wave and intensive care units under pressure, Dr Gabrielle Colleran pointed to a “perfect storm” of contributory factors.

She said: “We were doing so well, a certain amount of fatigue set in and then we had relaxation of restrictions around hospitality in early December and then over Christmas, we had intergenerational mingling of families.”

Those debating how Ireland exceeded its worst-case scenario are ignoring an elephant in the room, according to Irish author and broadcaster Dearbhail McDonald.

She said: “There’s another factor that we have to consider and that is the constitutional question across the island of Ireland and Brexit.

“That has been a factor and the failure in some respects to have an all-island policy and measures that might have mitigated against some of the worst effects of the coronavirus.”

Many believe Ireland should have capitalised on its island status by closing all ports and airports much like New Zealand did.

But for that to be effective, you would have to shut Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK or shut the north-south land border – deeply contentious options.

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