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Northern Ireland lockdown is preventing 'staggering' death toll... but we are still on a knife edge, says Swann

The ongoing lockdown is preventing a "staggering" death toll from coronavirus, Northern Ireland health chiefs have said.

Amid concerns that the lockdown could ultimately cost more lives than it saves - particularly in terms of missed cancer referrals, reduced hospital attendances, mental health, obesity and poverty - Health Minister Robin Swann has said Northern Ireland remains on a knife edge with a death toll "not seen since the worst of the Troubles".

Speaking at yesterday's Executive's daily press conference, Mr Swann also made a direct appeal against complacency after a further 20 people died as a result of the virus, the largest single daily toll since the outbreak began.

There have been 329 deaths recorded by hospital trusts to date in Northern Ireland.

However, the overall total is expected to be significantly larger when deaths in nursing homes and in the community are factored in.

Mr Swann said "countless sacrifices in daily life have been made and it has been worth it".

But the minister warned that now was not the time for easing restrictions and social distancing would be in place for months to come.

Mr Swann said some "tentative improvements" are starting to be seen, including a continued fall in the number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care - from 57 three weeks ago to 34 yesterday.

"Don't let anyone say this has all been overblown because, believe me, it hasn't," he said.

The minister added that the "mounting death toll is already on a scale not seen even during the worst days of the Troubles".

While Mr Swann has announced plans to appoint a new mental health champion, Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride told the briefing he was "acutely aware" of the lockdown's impact on those waiting for urgent treatment such as cancer screening and others with long term conditions who have been in isolation in recent weeks.

Mr Swann also warned that when the time comes to ease social distancing, it will "not be like flicking a switch on going back to the old ways".

"Social distancing will be with us for many months," he added.

Dr McBride told the briefing that Northern Ireland is not yet through the first wave of the virus nor have we reached the stage of some other European countries which are beginning to ease restrictions.

"We are not all in the same place at this time and that is crucially important for us to remember," he said.

"It is too soon, it is too early for us to lose the ground we have made."

Dr McBride stressed that following advice on hand hygiene and social distancing measures will make a difference in the coming weeks while also warning that complacency remains the greatest enemy.

The next phase involves moving towards community-based testing in GP practices, emergency departments and among routine admissions to hospital, he said.

Dr McBride said that at the moment it is estimated that someone with coronavirus in Northern Ireland will go on to infect, on average, 0.7-0.8 others.

"When we keep it below one that means we're not seeing exponential growth in terms of the spread of the virus," he said.

"If we drop our guard, as the minister has said, we will rapidly return to exponential growth in this virus.

"That will claim more lives, it will put more pressure on our health service.

"As I've said many, many times, please let none of us look back and regret not taking steps now that we wish we had."

Northern Ireland's most senior medic added: "Stay at home, protect yourselves and protect each other."

Belfast Telegraph