Robin Swann hasn’t had an easy ride since taking up the post of health minister.
Of course, no-one thought it was going to be a walk in the park — the health portfolio is notoriously regarded as the toughest job at Stormont. However, it was impossible to predict just how difficult his brief would become.
After facing down the first deadly wave of Covid-19, Mr Swann was joined on Tuesday by the chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor at Parliament Buildings where they issued a stark warning over the spread of the virus. Using language designed to hammer home the threat facing Northern Ireland, the UUP minister said the region is in danger of “sliding down a very slippery and treacherous slope”.
He stressed that local lockdowns and other general restrictions are now very real possibilities in a bid to stop the virus from regaining its hold of Northern Ireland. The chief medical officer was even more vociferous in his call for people to comply with Covid-19 safety measures, ordering those who aren’t following regulations to “wise up”.
You would think the fact that this was the first time in months that the trio has appeared together to issue such an ominous warning would be sufficient to reinforce just how concerned they are. Worryingly, the message seems to have been lost on some and the naysayers and conspiracy theorists have been out in force ever since, dismissing any suggestion that Covid-19 is anything more sinister than a bad flu.
The fact is, the number of people in Northern Ireland with Covid-19 has increased 10-fold, yet only four times as many tests are being carried out. These figures are a clear indication that Covid-19 is spreading and while the growing number of positive cases have not yet translated into a rise in hospital admissions, there is a lag between people contracting the virus and becoming seriously ill.
The experts are also clear — action is necessary to halt the rise in cases and so now Mr Swann is faced with probably his greatest challenge to date, as he brings forward proposals for fresh safety measures.
Compliance with the first lockdown was only achieved as a result of harrowing scenes in Italian hospitals and a projected death rate of 15,000 people in Northern Ireland. This time around, Mr Swann has to convince people to comply with measures that could significantly disrupt their lives — potentially depriving them of time with loved ones or the opportunity to go to work or send their kids to school — against a backdrop of cynicism that the virus isn’t as dangerous as previously thought and growing complacency and fatigue that stopped officials from implementing the original lockdown at an earlier stage.
It may take a spiralling death toll to win people over but by that stage, it will be too late.