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NI health minister rules out relaxation of social distancing rules

Robin Swann warned that Northern Ireland remains on a ‘knife edge’.

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Robin Swann said the spread of Covid-19 has not been as serious as first feared (Stephen Davison/PSNI/PA)

Robin Swann said the spread of Covid-19 has not been as serious as first feared (Stephen Davison/PSNI/PA)

Robin Swann said the spread of Covid-19 has not been as serious as first feared (Stephen Davison/PSNI/PA)

Northern Ireland’s health minister has ruled out any “sudden shifts” around social distancing rules.

Robin Swann said the Covid-19 outbreak “has not yet reached the point” where restrictions can be relaxed.

“There will be no major or sudden shifts back to how things used to be, and it must be stressed that any future decisions on social distancing regulations will be taken carefully and incrementally,” he said.

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Health Minister Robin Swann (Kelvin Boyes/PA)

Health Minister Robin Swann (Kelvin Boyes/PA)

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Health Minister Robin Swann (Kelvin Boyes/PA)

Addressing the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Ad Hoc committee on the Covid-19 response, Mr Swann said progress achieved by adherence to the rules “will be lost very quickly if there is any adverse change in compliance … or relaxation of the restrictions”.

On Thursday the Department of Health confirmed nine more people had died, making a total of 347.

Another 73 positive cases were detected, taking the number of confirmed cases to 3,536.

A total of 848 patients are in hospital with Covid-19, including 33 in intensive care.

Care homes have confirmed 70 outbreaks.

The minister said the spread of the virus so far across the community has “not been as serious as we first feared”.

He added: “But that does not mean the warnings were misplaced, it means the warnings were taken seriously and people stayed at home and kept their distance.

“As the chief scientific adviser warned earlier this month, Northern Ireland remains on a knife edge.”

Mr Swann emphasised that testing is growing, and said that on Wednesday 2,243 tests were carried out or completed, the “highest daily number”.

“At the start of this pandemic, the HSC laboratory service had capacity of around 40 tests per day,” he said.

“The latest number of tests carried out that will be officially reported later today are 1,419 in our local labs, and a further 824 as part of the national testing programme at the three local testing sites.

“That means yesterday we carried out or completed a total of 2,243 tests, our highest daily number to date.”

Mr Swann said there will be “no easy decisions” when it comes to discussing the next phase.

“The time will come for a discussion on what comes next and we have to face this together honestly and openly,” he said.

We will all have to weigh up our options very carefully, working closely with colleagues across these islands to ensure that we take the right decisions at the right timeRobin Swann

“There will not be any easy decisions because we recognise that simply maintaining the current lockdown indefinitely could have serious repercussions for many people’s mental and physical wellbeing.

“We will all have to weigh up our options very carefully, working closely with colleagues across these islands to ensure that we take the right decisions at the right time.”

Earlier there were differing views on lockdown by other executive ministers.

Agriculture minister Edwin Poots suggested some churches and garden centres could reopen with social distancing measures.

Infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said discussions on potentially relaxing lockdown should be had between ministers within the executive.

“My view on things like this is that it is so complicated and so sensitive, and yet people want to know that their ministers are hearing their concerns and are considering them,” she told the BBC.

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Nichola Mallon (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Nichola Mallon (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

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Nichola Mallon (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

“I don’t think it is useful to have debates on these matters out in public among ministers.

“My preference is to discuss all of these things at Executive, be led by the evidence and medical advice, and come to an agreed position and communicate that very clearly through to the public.”

Ms Mallon said her department is considering extending footpaths to facilitate longer-term social distancing.

“We have to realise that social distancing is going to be with us for some time, that’s going to require us to do things differently,” she said.

“So on the back of that, looking around the world at cities and what other nations are doing, I’ve asked my officials to work up a number of pilot projects. One is around the extension of our footpaths because it’s not just an environmental improvement, it’s also an issue of public health.

“I have also asked them to work up pilots around pop-up cycle lanes, pedestrianised streets and to look to deliver all of this in partnership with councils and with the community.”

Ms Mallon said she is dealing with a “very difficult financial situation”, but there are things that can be done which “don’t cost huge sums of money”.

“So that’s what I’ve asked officials to look at,” she added.

“I think if we come through this ordeal and just go back to the way things were, we will have learnt nothing.”

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