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Coronavirus in Northern Ireland to be classed as 'notifiable disease' - allowing legally-compelled testing


Officials in Northern Ireland are preparing for coronavirus to hit (stock image)

Officials in Northern Ireland are preparing for coronavirus to hit (stock image)

PA Archive/Press Association Images

Officials in Northern Ireland are preparing for coronavirus to hit (stock image)

Stormont's health committee has agreed to classify coronavirus as a "notifiable disease", which would allow a judge to legally compel someone suspected of having the disease to undergo medical testing.

Although health officials have warned this power is highly unlikely to ever be used, it highlights the seriousness with which the Department of Health (DoH) is taking the situation.

The DoH's chief environmental officer, Nigel McMahon, briefed committee members on Thursday regarding coronavirus, now known as Covid-19, recommending they agree to adding the virus to the list of "notifiable diseases", as per Schedule One of the Public Health Act (Northern Ireland) 1967.

Schedule One of the Act includes dozens of infectious diseases, such as foot and mouth disease, bird flu and TB..

Coronavirus Data Graphs

Mr Mahon said: "The primary effect of making this statutory rule under the 1967 Act is that it would require medical practitioners to share information with the Public Health Agency (PHA) if they are aware of someone who has contracted the disease.

"This would ensure the health and social care service as a whole can respond."

He said we are in "exceptional times" regarding the emergence of the virus and he wanted to make members aware of the powers contained within the act, which would now be available to health officials.

The statutory rule is due to come into effect on Saturday.

"In relation to notifiable diseases under the 1967 Act, this would allow the Public Health Agency to seek an order from a district judge to require someone suspected of having coronavirus to undergo medical testing," he explained.

The introduction of the statutory rule would also make it an offence for someone with the virus to go to work.

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll questioned what evidence would be required for someone to be forcibly tested, and if this would raise any human rights concerns.

"To my knowledge these powers have not been used, as most people would comply with medical advice," he said.

"Broadly speaking the evidence to support making an order would have to be provided by the director of the Public Health Agency.

"They would have to state person is likely to have the disease and any action proposed would have to be in the interest of the person's family or wider public."

"The person would need to be ill or the medical practitioner would need to suspect they are ill, perhaps through a initial presumptive test."

In terms of issues around human rights, Mr Mahon said the DoH is seeking to iron out the differences in legislation the UK and Republic of Ireland and take a "consistent approach".

"There are certain checks and balances in place and we would be confident they would be carried out appropriately," he added.

A DoH spokesperson said the decision is subject to negative resolution procedure before the assembly.

"The primary effect of making Covid-19 disease notifiable under the 1967 Act is to require medical practitioners to share patient information with the Public Health Agency if they become aware, or have reasonable grounds for suspecting, that a person they are attending has coronavirus disease (Covid-19)," they said.

"This information is vital in alerting the Public Health Agency to cases or suspected cases of Covid-19, to help ensure that the Health and Social Care system as a whole can quickly respond, and for surveillance and tracking of the spread and epidemiology of the disease.

"Health Minister Robin Swann has also expressed his thanks to the Committee for their support."

While there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Northern Ireland, 52 people have been tested.

Five schools have also put in place precautionary measures after pupils came home from half-term ski trips to Italy, where there have been a number of deaths due to the outbreak. Some pupils have been sent home.

Health officials have warned that it is inevitable that coronavirus will hit Northern Ireland.

An isolation ward is on standby at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast should there be any confirmed cases.

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