Health officials are “working rapidly” to identify anyone who has come into contact with the first patient to test positive for coronavirus in Northern Ireland.
At a hastily convened press conference tonight, Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride revealed that an adult who had travelled to Northern Ireland from northern Italy via the Republic of Ireland had recorded a “presumptive positive” reaction to a test for the virus.
The test has now been sent to Public Health England for confirmation of the positive result, which is expected today.
So far 17 people have died from the virus in Italy and a further 650 people have been infected.
Flanked by public health experts, Dr McBride said: “The test of a patient in Northern Ireland had resulted in a presumptive positive test for coronavirus Covid-19.
“In line with protocol, the Northern Ireland test outcome has been sent to Public Health England for verification.
“The patient is receiving specialist care and public health staff here are now working rapidly to identify any contacts the patient has had, with the aim of preventing any further spread.
“We have been planning for the first positive case in Northern Ireland and have made clear that it was a question of when not if.”
A special unit has been established at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for isolating those suffering from the virus, but the health authorities were unable to confirm where the patient was being treated. Nor would Dr McBride confirm nor deny reports that the patient was female and had travelled through Dublin into Northern Ireland using public transport.
He also declined to say when the coronavirus patient had arrived in Ireland from Italy.
“This is a live investigation into the individual concerned, their mode of travel and the people they may have come into contact with and I’m not in a position to divulge any of that information at this time,” he said.
In Dublin tonight, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) staff were scrambling to contact hundreds of airline passengers who shared a flight to Dublin from Italy with the woman.
Officials in the Republic will be contacting anyone who sat within two rows of the infected passenger on the flight.
It is understood the woman from Northern Ireland arrived sometime in the last 48 hours and later travelled to Belfast on the Enterprise service from Connolly Station. Attempts are also being made to contact the rail passengers.
The presumptive positive test in Northern Ireland brings the number of UK cases of coronavirus to 16.
“We have very robust infection control measures in place, which have allowed us to respond immediately to this situation,” Dr McBride said.
“Our health service in Northern Ireland is well used to dealing with these situations and I want to reassure the public that we are prepared.
“The patient who had tested positive had contacted their GP and self-isolated in line with public health guidelines.
“The advice to the public remains the same: members of the public who have visited infected regions and are concerned that they may have symptoms that are consistent with coronavirus are advised to self-isolate at home, and contact their GP in the first instance.
“The risk to the population of Northern Ireland has not changed as a consequence of this presumptive positive test result.”
The Chief Medical Officer would not disclose any other information about the coronavirus patient, citing patient confidentiality, but he did say that the patient had not been part of any school trips to the infected area of Italy.
“We know that this virus is transmissible from person to person. We know that the risk of transmission is high only for those individuals who have had close personal contact — that means face to face contact or those individuals that have been within two metres of an infectious individual for more than 15 minutes,” he said.
“The public can be reassured that those people who have had casual passing contact need not have any concern.”
Dr McBride said anyone the public health agencies thought could be at risk following contact with the traveller from northern Italy would be contacted by officials first in terms of whether they have been exposed to the virus.
The public can be confident we are working in a collaborative wayDr McBride
He said a programme of intensive, detailed work involving hundreds of Public Health Agency staff in Northern Ireland and the HSE in the Republic was already under way. They are working jointly to ensure that those people who are at increased risk are actively followed up on, contacted and given appropriate advice in terms of minimising the risk of onward transmission.
“The public can be confident we are working in a collaborative way” Dr McBride said.
Irish health minister Simon Harris said the first confirmed case in Northern Ireland was “not unexpected”.
“Giving the evolving situation, this first case of Covid-19 was not unexpected,” he said.
“The National Public Health Emergency Team has been planning for this scenario since January.”
Another of today's three new UK cases, a parent at a Buxton primary school in Derbyshire, contracted the virus in Tenerife, where 168 Britons are being kept in a hotel on the south west of the island.
The third patient also contracted the virus in Italy, which has become the worst affected country in Europe.
Meanwhile, 168 Britons remain confined to the H10 Costa Adeje Palace in Tenerife after at least four guests were diagnosed with coronavirus.
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.
The Public Health Agency (PHA) has apologised to a Northern Ireland family after they were advised to isolate themselves in their home after their son returned from an Italian ski trip.