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Coronavirus: Row over Sinn Fein's U-turn on school closures as health minister says NHS services in Northern Ireland must be curtailed


Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill disagree on the
way forward over coronavirus

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill disagree on the way forward over coronavirus

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill disagree on the way forward over coronavirus

Health service activity across Northern Ireland is to be significantly curtailed to deal with the coronavirus crisis.

Yesterday, it was announced that the number of cases here had soared by 45% in 24 hours, with nine new cases announced - the biggest rise yet.

And the Public Health Agency (PHA) said three of those represented the first cases of community transmission of Covid-19 - not linked to travel - detected here.

It came as the Executive split over its response to the pandemic, with deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill backtracking on her stance of the previous evening.

In a rare show of unity on Thursday, First Minister Arlene Foster and Ms O'Neill jointly insisted that the Executive chose not to close Northern Ireland's schools based on scientific evidence.

However, in a U-turn less than 24 hours later, Ms O'Neill announced that schools, universities and colleges should close, saying "now is the time to take action".

Last night she was accused of being utterly reckless over her solo run as UUP leader Steve Aiken accused Sinn Fein of "seeking to politicise public health".

As the crisis escalated on Friday:

  • The UK saw a spike in cases, with 798 people testing positive for coronavirus by 9am yesterday - up from 590 at the same point on Thursday.
  • The World Health Organisation said Europe was now the "epicentre" of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • A raft of sporting events were postponed, with the Premier League suspended until April 4, along with golf's Masters and England's cricket tour of Sri Lanka.
  • A London Underground tube driver tested positive, while the city's St Patrick's Day parade and celebrations tomorrow were cancelled.

Last night, Health Minister Robin Swann revealed that resources would be diverted to care for coronavirus patients.

Affected services will include non-urgent outpatient appointments, day cases, inpatient and diagnostic work.

Suspect cancer cases and other urgent care will continue, he said, unless advised by the applicable Trust.

Venues for services may also change as Trusts try to manage and centralise in a bid to maintain services. Patients will be contacted about any changes to already scheduled appointments.

The process of scaling back provision will be phased in over the days and weeks ahead.

GPs will also prioritise work to address Covid-19 cases and practices may reduce certain services.

This is undoubtedly the biggest public health challenge for at least a generation Robin Swann

Mr Swann said the health service here, like the rest of the world, is "coming under severe pressure".

"I obviously want to apologise to everyone who will have appointments and treatments postponed," he said.

"Unfortunately, this is unavoidable. This is undoubtedly the biggest public health challenge for at least a generation.

"It will require a government-wide and society-wide response, not only caring for those who fall ill, but also providing support to anyone impacted by self-isolation and any social distancing measures that are put in place in the weeks ahead.

"I am very grateful for the support that has been evident right around the Executive table."

It came hours after Ms O'Neill, standing alone in Stormont's Great Hall, backtracked on her party's stance on how to deal with the crisis.

She said: "Now is the time to take action and ensure the schools, universities and colleges are closed and that needs to happen immediately." She said large numbers of parents had decided not to send their children to classes yesterday and government needed to listen to the public. She added: "People are fearful."

However, less than 24 hours earlier, along with her colleagues from the DUP, UUP and the SDLP, Ms O'Neill had said: "We are very much guided by the science that suggests that this is not the right decision at this time."

DUP leader Arlene Foster said she was "disappointed, but not surprised" by Ms O'Neill's call for schools to be closed immediately.

She reiterated it will happen at some time, but the timing was important to have the maximum impact in flattening the infection's peak and protecting the elderly and vulnerable. "Our job is to follow the science and take decisions based on science."

She added there probably was more confusion following Mrs O'Neill's intervention, and said Mrs O'Neill had not acted outside her ministerial brief.

Mrs Foster said the peak will be in 14 to 16 weeks, and once schools are shut, they will be closed for the summer.

Mr Aiken, meanwhile, accused Sinn Fein of creating "more fear and uncertainty".

"They are playing party politics with health and that is utterly reprehensible," he said.

"It fundamentally undermines the credibility and integrity of the Executive."

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) said it was coming under heavy pressure after a spike in unnecessary coronavirus-related 999 calls. It urged people to only dial 999 in a genuine medical emergency as it was struggling to cope.

"We would ask callers to consider contacting the Public Health Agency website in the first instance and follow the advice there," a spokesperson said.

Belfast Telegraph