PANIC about a new and potentially more contagious strain of coronavirus couldn’t have come at worse time for Northern Ireland’s health service.
The emotive language used by British health secretary Matt Hancock to describe the variant as “out of control” and overnight shutdown of London also didn’t help the public mindset as they grapple with the fallout from the second wave.
Calm and reasoned political leadership along with coherent messaging should be a given but has been wholly lacking from Whitehall throughout this pandemic, with the trickle down felt at Stormont – already riven by divisions on how to manage the ongoing crisis.
The emergence of this new mutant strain must be taken seriously and the drastic border closures, flight cancellations and tightened rules about Christmas gatherings will no doubt go some way to slowing its spread.
But questions are now being posed as to why it took British authorities so long to trigger this response after scientists discovered its circulation back in September.
Virologist Dr Gerald Barry today raises concerns about political “scaremongering” at a time when severely relaxed restrictions were initially allowing three households to mix indoors for five days over Christmas despite soaring infection rates and many hospitals operating beyond capacity.
A u-turn was performed on this decision on Saturday night following an outcry from scientific and medical experts about the impact on what is already a highly transmissible virus in its current form.
And while Dr Barry accepts there is evidence to suggest the new strain may be more contagious, his concerns about the British government’s slow response in triggering stringent measures and green-lighting the relaxation of festive rules are legitimate.
The fact that coronavirus rates have suddenly spiked in the past fortnight may in part be linked to a new variant but a big increase in pre-Christmas socialising, shopping and fatigue after living with this virus for 10 months also play a key role.
It is inevitable this latest strain will be found both north and south of the border within days as scientists now know what they’re hunting for.
The onus is on the public to act responsibly over the holiday period but equally politicians must act on the advice of the experts in making decisions and trying to manage its spread, variant or no variant.