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Coronavirus death toll in Northern Ireland may be lower than initially feared, says Swann

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Difficulties: Robin Swann

Difficulties: Robin Swann

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Difficulties: Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann has indicated the death toll from coronavirus in Northern Ireland may be less severe than initially feared - but warned our battle with the virus will continue for the "long haul".

Mr Swann said new analysis suggested we may escape the very worst of the peak.

But he cautioned against complacency, adding that "difficult times lie ahead".

A further six hospital deaths were announced here yesterday, bringing the total so far to 140.

However, the full tally will be higher as it does not include deaths outside hospitals and those with suspected Covid-19 who did not undergo a test.

Yesterday it was announced the lockdown would continue for three more weeks, with movement restrictions extended until at least May.

Mr Swann warned the decision on when to ease them will be difficult as the local economy suffers its worst damage ever.

Mr Swann said: "The prospect of a second surge later this year must weigh heavily on all our minds.

"This is no time for final verdicts to be delivered, favourable or critical.

"We are in this for the long haul.

"We will also have to face up to difficult conversations down the line about when or if to ease any social distancing restrictions.

"That time is not now. At this moment in time, we have to stick firmly with the measures we have."

Only essential travel is permitted and people are urged to remain at home to limit infection spread.

Last month Mr Swann warned of a "worst case nightmare scenario" of 15,000 deaths here if no precautions were taken.

Earlier this month this was revised to a worst-case prediction of 3,000 deaths in the first wave of the pandemic.

Yesterday Mr Swann suggested the peak, expected to run from April 6 to 20, could be less severe.

"Modelling colleagues have indicated that the peak here may now - potentially - be less severe than we had feared, in this first wave at least," he added.

"I'm sure you will all agree with me when I say that it was reassuring, but not surprising, to see the positive and responsible approach adopted by the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, who adhered to social distancing over the Easter holidays."

However, he cautioned that no one can be certain how the first wave will play out.

He added: "No modelling can predict the future, but we can acknowledge that the unprecedented social distancing restrictions on all our lives are starting to make an impact.

"But there can be no grounds whatsoever for complacency.

"The focus now as much as ever has to be on staying at home, saving lives and protecting our health service.

"Difficult times lie ahead, I have no doubt.

"But I am confident that we are ready to face them together."

Mr Swann also addressed the issue of personal protective equipment, saying ministers are attempting to replenish supplies for health workers.

A quarter of a million gowns have been sent to England and Mr Swann defended temporary sharing of materials throughout the UK.

He held discussions with fellow ministers yesterday about maintaining social distancing restrictions.

He said: "On the back of that review, the Executive today has agreed that the restrictions and requirements set out in the regulations continue to be necessary if we are to continue to flatten the epidemic curve, manage the capacity of the health service and keep Covid-19 deaths to a minimum.

"There will be a further review, which will inform how we progress and the position will be closely monitored.

"However, now as before, the message remains the same: please keep safe, stay home, and protect our NHS, as they are working to protect us."

He said the gowns had been sent to England over the last fortnight to help ease pressure on protective supplies there.

He said Northern Ireland has significantly increased its supplies from local sources.

Mr Swann added: "Local industry is to be commended as it continues to show itself to be adaptable, innovative and responsive to changing operating environments."

China is the most significant source of worldwide supplies.

Mr Swann said the work led by the Department of Finance and Health Department to secure equipment was now at a critical stage.

"We continue to work to ensure all possible steps are taken to open up a supply chain which meets our needs and supports our four nations approach."

He said they were working to make sure health care workers who needed them were tested.

Mr Swann also expressed concern that not enough people were coming forward for unrelated medical care.

He added: "People are still having strokes, and people are still having heart attacks. That is why I would urge anyone who suspects they need to talk to a doctor or present to a hospital, to do so.

"Whilst having empty beds is positive, equally I don't want to see people who need to be in hospital not coming forward."

Belfast Telegraph