Stormont’s leaders are set to scale back their St Patrick’s Day trip to the United States in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The PA news agency understands First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill intend to cancel plans for the New York leg of their itinerary at the start of next week.
The DUP leader and Sinn Fein vice president are still anticipated to travel to Washington DC for a series of political meetings in the US capital later in the week.
The move is believed to be in response to the unfolding Covid-19 situation, with the leaders intent on limiting their time away from Stormont.
What we are doing is planning for all eventualitiesDr Michael McBride
The Executive Office has yet to formally confirm the move.
A spokesman said: “Ministers plan to travel to the United States next week to meet political and business leaders. The precise arrangements will be dependent on their broader ministerial responsibilities including Executive preparations to combat Covid-19. Further details of the visit will be provided in due course.”
Health officials in Northern Ireland have said routine hospital appointments and surgeries may be postponed if Covid-19 infects large numbers of people.
Wards could be set aside and more critical care beds added to the 100 already available.
Drive-through screening, establishment of special pods separate from emergency departments and home testing kits may be needed if the virus spreads widely through the community.
An NHS statement said: “The health and social care system is also planning for the possibility of reduced staffing in hospitals and the community as a result of coronavirus in order to mitigate against these risks.
“Depending on the pressures in the system in the months ahead, trusts (which provide health services) may have to consider postponing routine elective appointments and surgeries to focus on the immediate demands associated with coronavirus.”
The aim is to “flatten” the main community transmission peak and delay it until summer when services are less stretched.
Medical staff are in a phase of containment, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, said.
He added: “What we are doing is planning for all eventualities.”
One person in Northern Ireland has been diagnosed with the condition.
Around 99% of people affected will make a full recovery, while 95% will suffer mild to moderate symptoms which will not require hospital treatment, Dr McBride added.
That is based on data from the source of the infection in China and those numbers will change as they receive information from European systems more aligned with Northern Ireland’s.
Dr McBride said: “There are certain steps that we might want to take at an appropriate time which would delay the impact of the virus.
“For instance, we could think about steps around social distancing, something around mass gatherings, something around schools, which perhaps could prevent the wider transmission of the virus in the community.
It is prudent for travellers who are sick to delay or avoid travel to #COVID19 affected areas, in particular for elderly travellers and people with chronic diseases or underlying health conditions https://t.co/PObUcGlie0#coronavirus pic.twitter.com/opcTh99n2j— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) March 3, 2020
“It could push the peak away into the spring and summer time when we know there is less pressure on our services and actually could pull down the height of the peak and the number of people affected.”
He said they were planning for grouping patients in designated areas or wards and recalled similar efforts in response to the H5N1 avian flu virus.
“We have been here before, we have done this before and if need be we will put similar steps in place again.”
Options for testing include special drive-through areas or special pods to have the test carried out by staff wearing protective equipment.
Doctors are anxious to ensure potential cases do not show up at GP surgeries or emergency departments and spread the virus further.
Alternatives could also include checking in the community, where the procedure goes to the person, or home testing kits.
Miriam McCarthy, a director at Northern Ireland’s Health and Social Care Board, said critical care beds had been prepared.
A patient with the virus being treated in a single room will experience “negative pressure”, where air is sucked back into the room rather than mixing with other areas where some patients may have compromised immune systems.
She said: “We are working to ensure that we protect the critical care capacity for the sickest people.
“We have about 100 beds in Northern Ireland for adults and children. We may need every bit of that capacity to deal with people infected by the virus.”