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Festive free-for-all will spark new year coronavirus crisis: Robin Swann

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Warning: Health Minister Robin Swann during a Press conference in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, yesterday

Warning: Health Minister Robin Swann during a Press conference in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, yesterday

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Warning: Health Minister Robin Swann during a Press conference in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, yesterday

The Health Minister has warned against "a festive free-for-all" as Northern Ireland prepares to enter a further period of lockdown.

Robin Swann made the comments as a further seven deaths from coronavirus were announced by the Department of Health, bringing the total to 954.

A further 533 new positive cases of the virus have also been confirmed by Wednesday morning.

Hospitals in Northern Ireland are operating at 98% capacity, with a total of 443 confirmed inpatients with Covid-19, which includes 36 in intensive care units and 30 on a ventilator.

Speaking at a Stormont health briefing, Mr Swann said it was crucial to get the "maximum benefit" from a new two-week spell of lockdown restrictions.

"We have an opportunity to turn things around, this has been a year of great loss and great sacrifice," he said.

"Our actions now will have a huge bearing on the kind of Christmas that we all can have, so please play your part."

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Looking forward to better times next year, he said progress on the vaccine was promising but regulatory approval was yet to be granted.

Mr Swann said rolling out the vaccine in Northern Ireland will be "a massive logistical operation which will span several months".

Around 600 volunteers, including retired health professionals, have already volunteered to work as vaccinators in Northern Ireland to support the 880 working in health trusts.

On Christmas, Mr Swann said the greatest gift for loved ones would be obeying the rules to protect against a further spike in the virus.

"Social distancing will still be vital. A festive free-for-all would mean a new year crisis. While we can and should look forward to Christmas, it's not here yet. There's still work to do and that includes making the two-week lockdown as effective as possible.

"If we all do the right thing, more of us will get to enjoy this Christmas. It's that serious, but it's that simple.

"If we stick to the rules, there can be and will be fewer empty chairs around family tables on Christmas day."

Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said there had been a gradual decline in positive cases over the last week but said hospitals still remained under huge pressure.

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Decline: Dr Michael McBride said there had been a decrease in positive cases

Decline: Dr Michael McBride said there had been a decrease in positive cases

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Decline: Dr Michael McBride said there had been a decrease in positive cases

Asked if a new lockdown after Christmas was inevitable, Mr Swann said: "Your actions today will depend where we are in a fortnight's time never mind where we are in January."

Dr McBride emphasised the importance of personal responsibility and said risk could not be completely eliminated as more households come together over Christmas.

Asked about an additional £900m in funding for Northern Ireland announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Mr Swann said the delivery of a vaccination programme would be an immediate priority.

Dr McBride said the cost of the programme would likely cost "many tens of millions" but that it would help to reopen parts of the economy that had been hit the hardest.

"It's the return on that investment that we should focus on," he said.


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