Health Minister asks for 'consistency of message' from five parties
The Health Minister has refused to give any further details on Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 lockdown exit strategy.
Speaking at the Department of Health’s weekly press conference on Wednesday, Robin Swann declined to give indicative dates on when restrictions may be lifted as he said it may lead to false hope.
However, pressed for his prediction of the situation in Northern Ireland in the summer months, he said: “I hope, well I suspect, we will be in a far better place.”
There is mounting frustration over the Executive’s long-awaited Pathway Out Of Restrictions document, which has provided a rough guide on how restrictions will be lifted.
Mr Swann was asked for his reaction to criticism from some DUP MLAs, who have raised concerns over the strategy, including the phased return of pupils to schools.
In particular, First Minister Arlene Foster has said the plan is not one her party would have had if they were solely responsible, suggesting they would have moved at a faster rate.
Mr Swann said: “The plan was signed off by all five parties at the Executive table and I would ask them for a consistency in message that we support the plan that is laid out in the document.
“I don’t think it’s perfect but when you look at what other governments in other areas have produced as well, no-one has been able to produce a perfect plan to deal with this virus because this virus does not follow plans, it does not follow calendars.
“This is about the direction of travel that we as an Executive will take and we need to take here in Northern Ireland as a collective, because we know when we stand together, we can defeat this virus and we get a better result.”
Mr Swann was also asked for his response to comments by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the majority of restrictions will be lifted in England by the middle of June.
Mr Swann referred to four review dates laid out in the Executive plan, March 16, April 15, May 13 and June 10, although he stressed that it does not mean Northern Ireland will move to the next step at each review point.
“What the Prime Minister has set out in his plan for England is the earliest opportunity that they may move so again, it is about a target date they have set, not something that is set in stone,” he continued.
“There is always a concern, it is a concern that we have shared about the opportunity and concern that comes by setting false hope as well.
“It’s not something that I want to do, it’s not something that I think actually helps.
“When we get to June I hope, well I suspect we will be in a far better place.”
Mr Swann was speaking as Northern Ireland recorded a further four Covid-19 related deaths and 226 new cases were reported.
However, figures are showing a significant decline in the number of cases over a seven-day period.
They currently stand at 1,419, which is a 24% drop from the 1,884 cases recorded over the previous seven-day period and which were reported on February 24.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s vaccination programme is progressing at pace and Mr Swann has said he hopes the planned regional vaccine centre will be administering 40,000 jabs each week by the end of the month.
According to the latest figures from the Department of Health, 582,881 vaccines have now been administered.
Of these, 545,019 have been first doses and 37,862 second doses.
There has been a 96% uptake by people over 80-years-old, with a total of 69,146 people in the cohort having received at least one dose.
In the 75 to 79 age group, 91% of the cohort has received the vaccine, while 86% of the 65 to 69 age group has now had at least one dose.
Just less than three-quarters of the 65 to 69 age group has had a vaccine and 45% of people who are in the clinically extremely vulnerable group have had a vaccine, although many of them may have already been vaccinated in one of the older age cohorts.
Mr Swann said: “I know it will provide very welcome reassurance and a sense of hope for many families as we see hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable citizens gaining the protection of the vaccine.
“We expect the supply of vaccine to increase significantly this month, the programme is accelerating and we are moving very well through the priority groups.
“So please be patient, we will get to you. And remember that while every jab is taking us a step closer to the better times ahead, we still need to maintain our efforts to stop Covid spreading.”