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Robin Swann unveils 'health service surge plan' as first Northern Ireland death recorded

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Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann has detailed the first phase of "health service surge" plans as Northern Ireland continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

It comes following the first death attributed to the virus in Northern Ireland on Thursday.

The patient died in hospital in the greater Belfast area and was elderly, with an underlying health condition.

There are a total of 77 confirmed cases in Northern Ireland, with nine new cases diagnosed on Thursday.

The surge plans are aimed at prioritising essential services and increasing capacity in the health sector.

In a written statement to the assembly, Robin Swann said the Northern Ireland health service will soon become "unrecognisable" amid the rapid spread of coronavirus and changes that "would have seemed unthinkable" weeks ago will become the new norm.

The plans will cover the immediate period to mid-April.

Mr Swann warned that up to 80% of Northern Ireland's population could become infected if public health advice is not followed.

There is no doubt that these measures come at a cost. They will be difficult for people to stick to. They will have significant social and economic impacts. But they will save lives Robin Swann

"If social distancing and other measures are implemented by the population, with a combined effect they could reduce the peak by some 50% and reduce deaths by up to a third," he said.

"Planning assumptions also indicate that 8% of infected people will require hospitalisation, 0.7% will require critical care, and 1% will die – although these figures will vary highly depending on age and other health factors.

“There is no doubt that these measures come at a cost. They will be difficult for people to stick to. They will have significant social and economic impacts. But they will save lives.”

At a glance: Main elements of COVID-19 surge plan

  • 800 Covid-19 tests per day (up from 200)
  • 40 new ventilators
  • Redeployment of nursing and midwifery students
  • Additional bed capacity in all trust areas
  • Rapid increase in critical care bed provision
  • Testing for frontline health staff

Key actions in the surge plans include increasing the number of Covid-19 tests each day to 800, allowing for more frontline health and social care staff to be tested.

The Public Health Agency currently has the capacity to carry out 200 tests per day.

The number of adult critical care beds will also be increased. Routinely, 88 such beds are used across Northern Ireland - 56 of these for patients requiring a ventilator, and 32 for those who are critically ill but do not require a ventilator.

Mr Swann said this figure can be increased by 38 if necessary.

In the next two weeks, up to 880 senior nursing and midwifery students will be redeployed to clinical care and final year medical students at Queen's University will be added to the medical register four months earlier in order to help out at Northern Ireland's hospitals.

In order to deal with the shortage of ventilators that are expected to be required to treat those in intensive care, 40 additional machines have been ordered, 30 adult units and 10 paediatric units. This will bring the total number of ventilator's in Northern Ireland to 179 by the end of this month.

Robin Swann praised health and social care staff dealing with the crisis, stating: "The words ‘thank you’ seem woefully inadequate in the circumstances but they still need to be said – on behalf of everyone across our society.”

He also appealed to the public, reiterating the need to follow Public Health Agency advice on hand-washing and using tissues when coughing of sneezing.

"This will help keep more of our family members, neighbours and friends well and by doing so reduce pressures on our health service," he said.

"As I have already stated publicly, doing the right thing is essential if the health and social care system is to get through this.

“This also includes following all the social distancing guidance to the letter, not just today, tomorrow and next week but throughout the months ahead, for as long as it takes.”

Other measures detailed in the surge plans include restrictions on the number of hospital visitors and ensuring patients who are well enough are "safely and rapidly" discharged from hospital in order to free up beds.

Routine GP work will also be suspended or altered for a number of weeks, with requests for consultations carried out over the phone.

Community pharmacies will deliver more prescriptions to households.

The surge plans come following the announcement that all schools in Northern Ireland are to close from Monday.

Education Minister Peter Weir said only skeleton staff would be employed at some schools in order to accommodate the children of healthcare workers.

While the closures will mean no physical exams will be taking place in the coming months, the minister assured students that they will still receive their qualifications.

Belfast Telegraph