The first cases of community transmission of Covid-19 not linked to travel have been detected in Northern Ireland, health authorities said.
They recorded the biggest increase in numbers affected so far as the heads of Stormont’s devolved Government were at loggerheads over when to close schools to hinder its spread.
Health service activity will be “significantly curtailed” as doctors and nurses are marshalled to delay the spread of the infection, minister Robin Swann said.
Affected services will include non-urgent outpatient appointments, day cases, inpatient and diagnostic work.
Health service activity across Northern Ireland will have to be significantly curtailed as resources are diverted to care for coronavirus patients - Health Minister Robin Swann.https://t.co/bhpGkH7Ulv pic.twitter.com/xUPVwfDYPf— Department of Health (@healthdpt) March 13, 2020
Another nine positive cases were detected on Friday, bringing the tally to 29.
The Public Health Agency (PHA) said: “The move from containment to delay is timely as we have now seen our first cases of community transmission in Northern Ireland – three of the nine new cases published today.
“This was expected and highlights the importance of the additional guidance that has been put in place to reduce the spread in our community.”
Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster told the PA news agency she was “disappointed but not surprised” by Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill’s call for schools to be closed immediately and said that could last for five months.
She accepted it will happen at some time but the timing was important to have the maximum impact in flattening the infection’s peak and protecting the elderly and vulnerable.
She said: “Our job is to follow the science and take decisions based on science.”
Mrs Foster said some parents on low incomes relied on school meals to feed their children.
She added there probably was more confusion following Mrs O’Neil’s intervention and warned A-level exams could be disrupted.
The DUP leader said the peak will be in 14-16 weeks and it was appropriate to take action when science told them to.
“When we receive that advice we will act on that advice and make sure we do everything in our power to try to protect our citizens,” she said.
“Once we close schools the schools will be closed for the summer.”
Mr Swann said health services across the globe are coming under severe pressure.
“Ours is no different,” he said.
“We have now started freeing up resources in our health service to provide hospital care for the most seriously ill Covid-19 patients.”
Suspect cancer cases and other urgent care will continue.
Anyone displaying symptoms has been urged to self-isolate.
The devolved department in charge of benefits announced the temporary removal of the three-day waiting period for statutory sick pay.
People who need to self-isolate for medical reasons to protect others will be treated as being ill.
Venues for health services may change as providers try to manage and centralise in a bid to maintain services.
For patients who need a follow-up as outpatients, health authorities are planning for greater use of telephone contact and other digital technology.
Mrs O’Neill said schools, universities and colleges in Northern Ireland should close.
She claimed the public were concerned and fearful and the difference with the Republic of Ireland’s approach was causing confusion.
The Republic has implemented blanket closures and teachers just a few miles away from each other across the open Irish border are following different official approaches.
As of today many European countries have taken action— Michelle OâNeill (@moneillsf) March 13, 2020
In the South, schools are closing & gatherings cancelled
I have spoken to sporting organisations, schools & parents. People are concerned
Now is the time to take action in the North to close schools, universities & colleges pic.twitter.com/BAz0nu6W3j
Mrs O’Neill said: “Now is the time to take action and ensure the schools, universities and colleges are closed and that needs to happen immediately.”
She said large numbers of parents had decided not to send their children to classes today and the government needed to listen to the public.
She added: “People are fearful.”
Medical officials in Belfast are wary of acting too soon before there is evidence of community transmission, meaning the path of the virus cannot be traced.
European health authorities and the World Health Organisation have urged early and serious action.
In Ireland, schools, colleges, childcare facilities, museums and other tourist attractions have been closed in a major lockdown aimed at thwarting the spread of the virus and guided by European and scientific experts.
Sinn Fein finance minister Conor Murphy said: “The Executive is very clear that we should and will be doing all in our power to do the best we can to offset the damage that this health issue will bring to everyone.”