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Behind-the-scenes team navigating Northern Ireland out of crisis

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Janice Bailie

Janice Bailie

Janice Bailie

This is the group of little-known but influential people who are leading the way in charting our response and roadmap amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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Declan Bradley

Declan Bradley

Declan Bradley

'Coronavirus', 'social distancing', 'viral load' - they're all terms that, until a few months ago, most people had never heard of.

Fast-forward a matter of months and they're all used as part of everyday conversation.

So much has changed here since the arrival of Covid-19, it's a constantly evolving situation, and as we move beyond the first deadly surge of the virus and begin to look to the future, attention is turning to efforts to grapple back some semblance of order.

We want our schools to reopen, we want to get back into the shops, we want to be able to enjoy a meal with friends, to visit loved ones - and, perhaps most crucially, we need our health service to get back up and running. So, as pressure mounts on the politicians to produce a plan of action, work has been going on behind the scenes to assist them on the best way forward. And that is where the latest buzzwords 'modelling' and 'R number' come from.

Epidemic modelling involves taking what we know about a disease and a population and using it to make an educated guess about how it might spread, and the impact that social distancing and other restrictions might have on the number of cases and deaths.

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Jillian Johnston

Jillian Johnston

Jillian Johnston

It is an incredibly complex process, and in the case of coronavirus modelling in Northern Ireland, it has involved mathematicians, public health consultants and data analytics experts.

As Covid-19 pummelled its way across Europe, ravaging the likes of Spain and Italy, it became abundantly clear that it was highly infectious and the experts concluded that, without drastic action, we could expect up to 15,000 deaths here.

Cue the lockdown that saw schools close, the cancellation of thousands of operations and cancer treatments, and a ban on non-essential travel. Eight weeks on and it appears that social distancing is working. The team that predicted the potential for 15,000 deaths has now produced further research and the Department of Health has released a snapshot of their findings.

They are made up of a team of experts from local universities, the Department of Health, hospital consultants, data experts and the Public Health Agency.

They are: Gillian Armstrong, (DoH); Janice Bailie (PHA); Declan Bradley (PHA); Magda Bucholc (UU); Rob Brisk (SHSCT); Jillian Johnston (PHA); Frank Kee (QUB); Adele Marshall (QUB); Paul McWilliams of the Strategic Investment Board; Paul Montgomery (DoH); Eimear Smyth (DoH); Hugo Van Woerden (PHA), and chair Ian Young (DoH).

They have said that the reproductive (R) number in Northern Ireland is now down at 0.8, meaning each person with Covid-19 will infect less than one other person. This is down from 2.8, before the introduction of social distancing, when almost three other people were infected by each Covid-19 patient.

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Magda Bucholc

Magda Bucholc

Magda Bucholc

The aim is to reduce the R number to as low as possible and the idea is then that contact restrictions can begin to be lifted.

However, we have already seen outbreaks and a rise in hospital admissions in other countries where social distancing measures were eased, prompting second lockdowns to get the virus back under control. In short, it is absolutely crucial that we navigate this path with the utmost care, even in the face of pressure to return life to normal as quickly as possible.

Even reopening garden centres might result in a rise in cases, so the Executive will undoubtedly be relying upon the advice of their modelling experts in the weeks and months ahead.

The dangers of lifting restrictions are obvious: countless lives depend on the predictions being correct.

So while it will be the well-known faces of the Stormont Executive who make the final decisions, it is the modelling team behind the scenes that will play a crucial role in successfully guiding us out of one of the biggest crises the region has ever faced.

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Adele Marshall

Adele Marshall

Adele Marshall

Belfast Telegraph