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Concern as it emerges NI virus deaths will not be investigated by coroner

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Belfast City Hospital's tower block has been transformed into Northern Ireland's first Nightingale hospital. PACEMAKER BELFAST

Belfast City Hospital's tower block has been transformed into Northern Ireland's first Nightingale hospital. PACEMAKER BELFAST

Belfast City Hospital's tower block has been transformed into Northern Ireland's first Nightingale hospital. PACEMAKER BELFAST

Coronavirus deaths in Northern Ireland are not being reported to the coroner, it has emerged.

The Coroners Service, which is responsible for holding inquests into deaths when notified by the authorities, has said it will not be investigating Covid-19 cases.

A spokesperson said deaths due to the virus are "natural" and do not need to be reported.

It has led to concerns that the full story behind some deaths may never emerge.

Former health minister Jim Wells said coroners had an important role in cases where lessons can be learnt from a death in the health system.

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Concerns: Jim Wells

Concerns: Jim Wells

Concerns: Jim Wells

The Local Democracy Reporting Service investigated the issue.

There have been fears about the impact that a surge in cases will have on the system, and wider issues such as Do Not Resuscitate orders and the shortage of personal protection equipment for frontline health staff.

On Friday a further 10 deaths from people who tested positive for Covid-19 were recorded in Northern Ireland, bringing the death toll here to 92.

It was the second highest daily death total so far, amid concerns the virus is set to peak here.

The number of Covid-19 cases in Northern Ireland increased by 112, bringing the total of confirmed cases to 1,589. As of yesterday, a total of 11,006 people have been tested for the virus.

The UK overall experienced its highest daily death toll rise on Friday with a further 980 deaths, hitting a total of 8,958.

In the Republic the death toll now stands at 288 with a further 25 Covid-19 linked deaths revealed on Friday.

Earlier this week the Belfast Telegraph reported that the true death toll of the virus here may be up to 30% higher than official reports.

Currently only deaths where a patient has tested positive for coronavirus within the past 28 days are included in the figures.

It has now emerged that deaths here have not been reported to the coroner.

The Coroner's Office said: "Deaths due to coronavirus are considered 'natural' and do not need to be reported to the Coroner."

It continued: "The Coronavirus Act 2020 allows where a death occurs from a natural illness and the person was not treated by a registered medical practitioner within the past 28 days, any registered medical practitioner may sign the Medical Cause of Death Certificate if they can state, to the best of their knowledge and belief, the cause of death."

However, if Covid-19 deaths become notifiable, the position may change. The spokesperson added: "We have written to the medical profession to advise of the powers in the Act seeking careful consideration on whether a report to the coroner is necessary.

"The Chief Medical Officer has also issued guidance on the arrangements for the completion and issuing of guidance around issuing death certificates," the spokesperson concluded.

Jim Wells, who was health minister between September 2014 and May 2015, said families who have loved ones working in a health care environment should not be denied an inquest in the event of their relative dying after contracting coronavirus.

However, he acknowledged holding inquests into all coronavirus deaths would be hugely difficult.

"It's essential that lessons should be learned and coroners have a role in that," Mr Wells said.

"Hopefully, the number of deaths in that case would be tiny. I am in total awe of our health service staff."

He added: "I'm sure families would want to know that all that can be done to prevent deaths is done should another pandemic happen in the future."

Mr Wells said he did not think at this stage it would be appropriate for all Covid-19 deaths to be referred to coroners, which he feared would "overwhelm" the inquest system.

There have been concerns about how the health system here is equipped to deal with coronavirus.

This includes the rate of infection in our care homes, which take care of 16,000 older people.

Health care workers have also voiced fears in recent days that they have a greater risk of contracting coronavirus while working due to a lack of PPE.

There have also been reports that elderly patients have been asked to sign Do Not Resuscitate orders by hospital staff, while medics could face difficult ethical decisions in allocating ventilators.

Belfast Telegraph