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One island, two coronavirus strategies. Which one is right?

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A man walks his dog past graffiti calling for people to wash their hands to combat the spread of the coronavirus, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Monday March, 30, 2020
A man walks his dog past graffiti calling for people to wash their hands to combat the spread of the coronavirus, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Monday March, 30, 2020   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Peter Morrison
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Countries across Europe have very different strategies when it comes to testing and tracing cases of the new coronavirus. The island of Ireland is a prime example of how puzzling it can be.

Northern Ireland, which is covered by the UK's National Health Service, is advising people to self-isolate if they suspect they're infected. But testing kits are largely reserved to patients in hospital and health service workers.

Meanwhile, south of the border, the Republic of Ireland is testing people much more widely across the community and tracking coronavirus cases well beyond hospitals.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Gabriel Scally, President of Epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, told Euronews. He’s calling for an “all-island strategy” to be set up.

Right now, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remains very much open, even as public health strategies on both sides are very different.

“On one side of a bridge, you can be told that if you have symptoms of the virus you should isolate for seven days – and on the other side of the bridge, in the Republic of Ireland, you’ll be told you should isolate for 14 days,” Scally explained.

Different death counts

There are growing calls for both administrations to harmonise their responses. Last week, they agreed in principle to boost their co-operation in the field of public health strategies and research.

Right now, even deaths from the new coronavirus aren’t counted the same way on both sides of the border.

The UK, including Northern Ireland, only counts COVID-19 deaths if they occurred in a hospital and if the patient has tested positive for coronavirus disease in the past 28 days, Scally explained.

Meanwhile the Republic of Ireland counts all people who have died and had a diagnosis of coronavirus, whether it’s inside or outside of a hospital. This has led to more fatalities being reported in the Republic of Ireland, where deaths in care homes, for example, are being better monitored than across the UK, Scally said.

So far, at least 365 people have died from COVID-19 in Ireland, compared to 124 in Northern Ireland. It’s worth noting, however, that Ireland has a population of nearly 5 million, compared to around 1.9 million for Northern Ireland.

Still, the UK's response to the epidemic has drawn criticism, and hospital deaths nationwide have now topped 12,000. One of the government's senior scientific advisers, Jeremy Farrar, warned on Sunday that the country was likely to be "one of the worst, if not the worst affected" in Europe.

“I think their big error was that for a short period of time (...) they really decided to go for herd immunity. Which meant that the UK government supported people getting the virus in order to build up the immunity, and what they really wanted was just to stabilise it a bit so it didn’t overwhelm the health service. That didn’t last very long because it was very obvious that it was going wrong and that there were going to be a huge number of cases," Scally said.

More generally, the fact that the UK has not embraced community testing makes it “quite an outlier" among European countries, he said.

'Test, test, test'

Amid a global shortage of testing kits, France too has largely reserved them to hospital patients and health workers since the start of the outbreak. But the country has been trying to ramp up its capacities, and President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that authorities would be ready to test anyone with symptoms by May 11, when France hopes to start easing its lockdown.

The World Health Organization has urged countries to “test, test, test” people for COVID-19 as part of their efforts to fight the pandemic. And countries that have adopted mass testing strategies, such as South Korea and Germany, have managed to stay ahead of the curve and limit the number of deaths from the virus.

A number of European governments are now changing tack and embracing broader testing, especially as they consider how to ease lockdowns without risking a devastating rebound – or “second wave” – in infections.

It's time for member states to scale up their testing capacities, says Bruno Ciancio, head of the Epidemiological Methods Section, Surveillance and Response Support unit at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

“We consider that contact tracing and aggressive testing makes a lot of sense, especially when cases are going down. And this is definitely a strategy that every member state should have in place,” Ciancio told Euronews.

“More testing should be put in place in order to trace every single possible case and ensure (…) that contacts are isolated and that we can put this outbreak under control.”