As the British government pursued “herd immunity”, its Irish counterpart imposed an early lockdown to save lives.
A sea of tweed-clad punters, packed together to watch horses hurtle around a track, their minds set on winning a bet, is the image Irish people now conjure up to scare themselves into socially distancing. We call it the “Cheltenham Effect”.
While Ireland was already under partial lockdown, we watched the footage streaming in of 60,000 racegoers in attendance each day in the English countryside. Thousands of these gamblers were Irish people who would be on their way back soon. “It’s coming home,” Paddy Power ads promised.
Cheltenham works as a warning because as of 13 April, Ireland has recorded 365 deaths from the virus and the UK has recorded 11,329. Even allowing for the population difference, Ireland having 4.9 million people and the UK 66.65 million, the death rate per capita in the UK is still twice that in Ireland.
A series of tweets shared by tens of thousands of people last week drew attention to the disparity. Dr Elaine Doyle, a writer and researcher, highlighted that at the start of this pandemic the Irish and British health systems had almost the same number of intensive care beds per head. Why was the UK’s closest neighbour, starting with almost the exact same capacity, experiencing “a wildly different outcome”?
The obvious answer is timing. On 3 March, exactly a week before the Cheltenham races began and the same day Boris Johnson described shaking patients’ hands, Prince William was standing with a pint of Guinness in the sky-high Gravity Bar overlooking Dublin, joking in front of Irish first responders about the royal couple “spreading” the virus and suggesting that the outbreak may have been “hyped up” by the media.
UK health officials had already estimated that one in every hundred people infected would likely die. The next day, the British airline Flybe collapsed and Italy ordered the closure of all schools.
That week the UK confirmed its first death. There were more than 80 confirmed cases in Britain at that point and a handful in Ireland. Both the Cheltenham races and the St Patrick’s Day parade were still due to take place. “We’re pleased to hear the messages the government has put out suggesting there will be no immediate change to business as usual,” Ian Renton, the regional director of the Jockey Club, said of Cheltenham. “On that basis we’re proceeding.”
On 9 March, the Irish government announced that the St Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland would be cancelled. The following day, with the UK government still betting on “herd immunity”, the first races at Cheltenham began. That weekend most pubs in Ireland had already closed out of respect for the new protective measures. When footage was shared online of stag party groups parading around in fake hazmat suits, and several packed establishments in Temple Bar, an area of Dublin popular with tourists, #shutthepubs started trending and people called on the government to make closures official. That same weekend, sold-out concerts and sports matches were still taking place in the UK. These super-spreader events surely had an impact on the surge last week of people hospitalised in Britain, with a new daily peak of 980 deaths.
The Irish government’s previous reluctance to lose out on revenue from the St Patrick’s Day parade, or to abandon prime minister Leo Varadkar’s US trip (meaning he eventually announced school closures from Washington, DC), created a sense of a government finally acting in the public interest. We joked that Ireland had officially changed policy from “it’ll be grand” to “alright, fair enough”.
The British government, by comparison, had promoted the notion that the virus spreading quickly could be beneficial. While Varadkar declared that “acting together, as one nation, we can save many lives”, Boris Johnson warned that “many more families are going to lose loved ones”. By St Patrick’s Day on 17 March, the release of the Imperial College report modelling the sheer number of potential fatalities resulted in a dramatic U-turn and the announcement of a lockdown on 23 March, only three days after school closures had been imposed.
In those first few critical weeks it felt like people just across the water inhabited a different reality. My brother, who lives in London, thought I was joking when I first messaged him about Irish pubs shutting down. Everyone over there was still going out to work and to clubs. Pubs were advertising quarantine beer garden parties. It was as if they were living a week in the past. During pandemics, a week can make a crucial difference.