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Coronavirus: Swann 'to propose lockdown extension' - Five things Executive could discuss today

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The Northern Ireland Executive

The Northern Ireland Executive

PA

The Northern Ireland Executive

The Executive is to meet on Thursday to discuss the current coronavirus restrictions and tackling the virus's spread across Northern Ireland - with reports the health minister is to propose extending current measures.

A six-week lockdown period was imposed on Boxing Day in a bid to drive down the reproductive rate of the virus, the R number, which had increased to above 1. The majority of the hospitality sector and all non-essential retail was closed, with a 'stay-at-home' order in force.

Households are not allowed to meet indoors, with certain exemptions, while outdoor gatherings in gardens are limited to 10 people.

Thursday's meeting comes amid severe hospital pressures, cancelled cancer appointments and the announcement that military personnel would be brought in to help medical staff.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

It is understood the health minister is considering asking the Executive to extend the measures to March 5.

Here's what is likely to be discussed at the meeting:

Military Assistance

Health Minister Robin Swann has asked the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for military assistance, primarily at several hospitals across Northern Ireland.

More than 100 medically-trained personnel will be deployed at hospitals struggling with capacity issues.

Sinn Fein has said it would not "rule out" any measures that could help saves lives, however Mr Swann is likely to be pushed on the details of such assistance.

Northern Ireland's largest healthcare union, Unison, provoked criticism after releasing a statement on Wednesday stating it would ask the health minister for "detailed reasons" for the move.

General secretary Patricia McKeown said the statement was "misunderstood" and Unison was not objecting to military assistance.

Health Minister Robin Swann said the matter should not be used as a political football.

Hospitality

Pubs and restaurants have been closed since Boxing Day and are due to reopen when the current six-week lockdown period ends on February 6.

There are fears this date will be pushed backed until mid-April at the earliest amid stubbornly high Covid infection numbers.

Hospitality Ulster chief Colin Neill admitted: "It is hard to see anything open hospitality-wise before St Patrick's Day."

Willie Jack, the owner of Belfast's Duke of York and Harp Bar, added: "The earliest we will be open is the week after Easter, and I'm optimistic about that date due to the vaccine, but it will be limited.

"It will be on a quiet day midweek, and maybe just in the afternoon. It will not be like when the pubs reopened on a Friday last July, which was madness."

Cancer surgeries

Due to the severe pressures facing hospitals across Northern Ireland, health trusts have been left with no option but to postpone urgent cancer surgeries.

On Wednesday, the Western Trust became that latest to announce the move, with trust's director of acute hospitals, Geraldine McKay, stating it was a "very difficult but necessary decision".

"The decision to postpone all red flag cancer surgery will be closely monitored and reviewed regularly," she told the BBC.

"As the region continues to see a rise in the number of patients admitted to our hospitals with Covid-19, our staff will be required to support the care of the increasing number of Covid-19 patients who may require intensive care or enhanced respiratory support.

"We do not underestimate the anxiety and distress this causes the patients and families affected and we deeply regret this.

"We would like to reassure those patients that we will do everything in our power to reschedule their operation as soon as possible."

Dr Cathy Jack, one of Northern Ireland’s most senior health service officials has issued an emotional apology to the hundreds of cancer patients whose operations have been cancelled.

The chief executive of the Belfast Trust, laid bare the devastating consequences of the move, which she said will result in some patients coming to harm.

The issue of postponed cancer surgeries was brought the Executive's very door this week, after it emerged DAERA Minister Edwin Poots had been diagnosed with kidney cancer and is one of 400 cancer patients here whose potentially life-saving operations have been postponed since the start of January.

This has led the minister to explore getting private treatment.

Easing of other restrictions

Robin Swann will bring a paper to the Executive meeting setting out his recommendations on the restrictions, cautioning, however, that it is "highly unlikely" that they will be eased when the lockdown period is due to end on February 6.

"I will not pre-empt those discussions but I can make clear that this is not the time to open any floodgates. This is not the time to take premature decisions that would lead to another spike in cases and yet more crushing pressure on our hospitals," he said on Wednesday evening.

It is understood, however, that tighter restrictions are unlikely to be imposed at this stage.

Due to the relaxation of restrictions over Christmas the R rate of the virus rose to around 1.8, with any rate over 1 meaning the virus is spreading. By last week, however, it has fallen to between 0.7 and 0.9 within the community, but was still sitting between 1.2 and 1.4 for hospital admissions.

Speaking last week, chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride warned that the virus will not "magically disappear on February 6.

Special schools

Special schools in Northern Ireland have remained open throughout the current lockdown, however fears have been raised regarding the safety of pupils and staff.

On Wednesday, Stormont's Education Committee heard evidence from teaching unions on the issue and it emerged that pupils who have a relative at home who have tested positive for Covid are still able to attend school.

Justin McCamphill of the NASUWT told the committee that Public Health Agency guidance allows for a child whose parent tested positive to attend school if they have had no Covid symptoms for ten days - regardless if another family member has tested positive.

"This is extremely stressful for staff. As a union we are calling on the PHA to publish their scientific evidence which says this is safe," he said.

"Two-metre social distancing is near enough impossible to manage in these school environments. Staff are working under immense pressure.

"This is having a big impact on mental health and wellbeing."

Education Minister Peter Weir will likely be questioned as to what his department is doing to mitigate the risks in special schools and support pupils and staff.

Belfast Telegraph


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