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Revealed: Blueprint for post-Covid healthcare in Northern Ireland

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Belfast Trust's Dr Cathy Jack

Belfast Trust's Dr Cathy Jack

Charlie Martyn from South Eastern Trust

Charlie Martyn from South Eastern Trust

Belfast Trust's Dr Cathy Jack

Robin Swann has published his plan for rebuilding the health service in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Health Minister said there would an ongoing emphasis on high-priority cancer services and other urgent conditions.

And he warned that we could return to full lockdown if there was a second wave of Covid-19 later this year, although yesterday marked the third consecutive day with no deaths.

Mr Swann later said Northern Ireland had taken delivery of its first consignment of personal protective equipment from China - 1.5 million respirator masks arrived in Belfast in recent days, the first instalment from this supply line.

There had been controversy over a previous deal with Chinese suppliers that never materialised.

Just over 63 million Type 11R masks have been purchased alongside 54.6 million pairs of gloves.

The total value of the contract is just over £60m, with the rest being delivered over the coming weeks.

Asked yesterday if the anticipated second wave does hit would there be another way of battling the virus other than a lockdown, Mr Swann said it would depend on the extent of the outbreak.

"If we tread carefully and if we get out of the lockdown slow enough and managed enough to make sure that the virus is being managed and being restricted in its spread, if there is a second wave, it may not be as critical as the one we seen at the start," he said.

"But if we get to a point where our health service is being threatened, where we assess that we don't have the number of ICU beds in the current system to manage what will be a potential second wave, then our only option is to go back into a second lockdown."

Mr Swann praised the work of health trusts in how they had coped with the added pressure of Covid-19, saying that the virus and its aftermath represented the greatest challenge for our health service since its inception.

"We were staring down the road of the unknown, fearful of the pressures about to be applied to our health service and the staff who work in it," he said.

He added that due to the actions of the public, worst case scenarios were avoided, but that the virus "has still wreaked havoc on our communities".

Mr Swann said a terrible consequence of the pandemic is that, for some people, conditions will have gone undetected or untreated longer than they otherwise would have, and his focus now was on restarting as many services as possible.

He said scaling services up would not be an easy task, with social distancing still required and financial pressures still present.

"The development of these first-phase plans, however, have not prevented trusts from already resuming services," he said.

"From talking to trusts, I have been hugely impressed with how they have collectively stepped up in the fight against this virus and their ingenuity in identifying measures to repair the damage that it has done."

Appearing alongside Mr Swann, Belfast Trust chief executive Dr Cathy Jack said the virus will remain with us "for the foreseeable future" and change how services are delivered.

She added that it was necessary to scale back services to make sure we were "prepared for the worst", but that by putting everyday life on hold "many, many lives were saved" and the health service was protected.

Dr Jack said the Belfast Trust will now prioritise the most urgent, including red flag cancer surgery, urgent diagnostic tests and day case procedures, and reopening some day services that the vulnerable depend on.

Telephone triaging in outpatients will continue, as well as virtual and drive-through clinics.

"The invisible threat of Covid-19 has not gone away; there is every chance that we may have to take a step back from rebuilding and pause in the months coming," she added.

South Eastern Trust director Charlie Martyn said hospital emergency departments were now back to pre-Covid levels in terms of usage, describing them as "very busy", which he said was a challenge. Mr Martyn said many had looked at increasing their size to facilitate social distancing, and are even asking minor-case patients to wait in their cars for blood test or X-ray results, adding they were "anticipating a second wave".

Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, said "openness and transparency" were key to rebuilding services.

Dr Laurence Dorman, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said that patients deserved "a more responsive service" that ensures they are seen quickly and by the right person.

At yesterday's daily Covid-19 briefing Mr Swann said while the figures were encouraging, the virus was still a threat.

The official Department of Health death toll here remains at 537.

There were three new cases of Covid-19 announced, taking the total number of positive tests for the virus since the outbreak to 4,805.

Across the UK a further 286 people were recorded as having died from the virus, taking the total to 40,883.

Nine more people died in the Republic, bringing the overall death toll there to 1,691.

Belfast Telegraph