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It's vital to follow advice of experts and not get distracted by fake news about coronavirus

Robin Swann MLA


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An electron microscope image of the coronavirus released by the US’s National Institutes of Health

An electron microscope image of the coronavirus released by the US’s National Institutes of Health

National Institutes of Health/AF

An electron microscope image of the coronavirus released by the US’s National Institutes of Health

Coronavirus has rightly been described as the biggest public health challenge of a generation.

It may also be the greatest societal challenge since the Second World War.

People across Northern Ireland are looking to me and others in government to give leadership and assurance. They are worried, confused and want to know that concrete action is being taken.

I'm not just a politician or a minister, but a member of this society, with a family of my own that I love and want to keep safe.

The same goes for all those across these islands seeking to do the right thing. This is not a time for point scoring, personal attacks or questioning people's integrity.

Let me make clear that all options are on the table when it comes to protecting our citizens.

That includes all the social distancing measures that will work but which must also be sustained for long enough to be effective.

We will take the right steps, at the right time, guided by the evidence of what works. This includes taking action to shield and protect older people, limitations on public gatherings, and actions in our schools to delay spread and equip our children to help us with good respiratory and hand hygiene.

When necessary, it can also include school closures.

We cannot simply wish coronavirus away. There is no magic bullet, no single action to stop this virus, but there are a number of actions which will reduce its impact. We will take all necessary decisions to reduce the potential toll on our society and to seek to ease the pressures on our health service so the sickest get the care they need.

Much of this is about timing. Protecting people in a way that works - and lasts.

If it was just a question of shutting everything down for a limited period, then we would have already done it. It's sadly not that straightforward. Coronavirus is in our community, it's in neighbouring countries too and across our inter-connected world. It would still be there waiting for us to re-emerge from any shutdown.

Social distancing measures have to hold and be capable of spreading out the Covid-19 infection rate. That will help our health service cope.

Closing schools by itself will not be effective, if we can't sustain it.

It might even be counterproductive at this stage.

What is needed is a wider and phased social distancing strategy that holds together and works over months, not weeks.

That strategy has now kicked in. Anyone with mild symptoms is advised to stay at home for seven days.

That means anyone with a continuous cough and/or a fever should stay at home for seven days. This protects older people and other vulnerable citizens from infection and helps delay the peak of the virus.

So too does washing our hands properly, for 20 seconds each time, repeatedly throughout the day.

Of course, more government measures will be needed in the days and weeks ahead.

Social distancing for older people will be an important phase.

This will be about shielding rather than total isolation.

It will involve providing the necessary support and advice to help them through. That's going to require a government-wide and society-wide effort. But the hand washing and "catch it, bin it, kill it" messages will remain vital alongside everything else we are doing.

I therefore once again urge everyone to follow the public health advice. Don't be distracted by fake news, political noise or self-appointed experts on social media.

If you have mild symptoms, stay at home. You will not need to be tested. You should not contact or go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or emergency department. If your symptoms worsen during your home isolation, or you are no better after seven days, seek medical advice by telephone. If you have an underlying health condition and you develop symptoms, then let your GP know. Please only call 999 if it's an emergency.

Our system - including hospitals, ambulance service, GPs, and pharmacists - are under growing pressure. Please don't add to that unless you have to. And please be patient and treat our great staff with respect. They are there to care for you - you are their first concern. Please show them the same concern and consideration.

Belfast Telegraph