Northern Ireland’s health service must not return to the way it was before the pandemic, Health Minister Robin Swann has said.
Addressing the NI Executive’s daily conference, he said Covid-19 presented an opportunity to improve the health system in the long term.
But he warned that the ongoing presence of the coronavirus would mean there will be limits to what can be done in hospitals.
“Keeping people safe means separating Covid care and non-Covid care, that has been likened to running two health services in parallel with each other. This all amounts to a huge logistical challenge, it will require time, patience and ongoing funding,” he said.
He said health trusts have already been tasked with developing service rebuilding plans and that there can “be no return to the way we were in December 2019".
“Why should we aspire to return to a structure that was widely accepted to be flawed?” he said.
Mr Swann said the ‘R’ number, the reproductive rate of the virus, is currently 0.7-0.8 and he will be working to publish this figure weekly, but stressed that maintaining social distancing and following guidelines remains a life or death matter.
“People will be out and about a bit more including meeting family members and friends outdoors,” he said.
“Please remember social distancing remains a matter of life and death. Wash your hands like your life depends on it because it just might.”
Referring to the Executive’s announcement yesterday of a gradual easing of lockdown measures, he said it was “good news.”
“We must not throw away that progress,” he said.
“Flouting the public health advice will lead to the lockdown being tightened.”
The health minister also said that almost 5,000 tests had been carried out on care home residents, with almost 5,000 more care home workers also tested.
He added that a total of 64,000 tests had been carried out in total in Northern Ireland and that contact tracing for all confirmed cases of Covid-19 began on Monday.
“We expect this service to be in place for the next year at a minimum,” he said.
But he stressed that there will not be a “league table” of care homes affected by Covid-19.
“It would not be fair to name each individual care home affected, partially due to data protection regulations and also because it will put pressure on staff and families,” he said.
The minister also addressed the issue of mental health, which he said “remains a top priority for the department.”
Announcing the publication of a mental health action plan, he said mental health and well-being services have not stopped during the pandemic.
“Digital support is available and anyone who needed help should seek help through medical professionals,” the Minister said.
Mr Swann says the mental health action plan includes the introduction of a specialist a perinatal mental health services and child and adolescent mental health services.
The importance of mental health services had been brought into focus during the devastating impact of Covid-19, he added.
On cross-border co-operation during the crisis, Finance Minister Conor Murphy said that a meeting between ministers from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will take place on Tuesday evening.
“It is important that this process is coordinated across the island,” he said.
The finance minister also outlined details of the financial package and rates relief available and crisis funding across the education, infrastructure, hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors announced earlier in the day.