Mass Covid testing will not avoid need for Northern Ireland-wide restrictions, Robin Swann warns

Health Minister Robin Swann. Picture by Pacemaker

A further three people have died from coronavirus, according to new figures, as health minister Robin Swann warned that the introduction of mass testing would not avoid the need for Northern Ireland-wide restrictions.

A total of 2,955 people tested positive for Covid in the past week. There have been 50,064 positive tests since the start of the pandemic.

There are 438 people with Covid-19 in hospital. Of the 37 people in intensive care, 31 are on ventilators.

The three new deaths take the total number of fatalities recorded by the north's Department of Health to 936.

Mr Swann has written to Health Secretary Matt Hancock to request four million rapid tests.

But he said mass testing alone will not solve the crisis in the run-up to Christmas and would "represent a high-risk approach".

"It may not be viable for logistical or test supply reasons," he said.

He said it would require a "very high degree of population buy in" and present "huge logistical challenges".

There may be scope to target more limited mass testing to high risk areas.

The minister added: "This would be of help but, again, would not avoid the need for Northern Ireland wide restrictions at this time.

"Mass testing is an exciting development and together with a vaccine it offers great hope of a way out of our nightmare.

"But it is not a panacea, and certainly not at this time and certainly not without restrictions in place before Christmas."

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said the reopening of schools contributed .2 to an increase in the reproductive rate of the virus, which is currently sitting at around one.

He told The Stephen Nolan Show: "These are hard choices, they are difficult decisions, but all of them have an impact.

"What we need to do as a society and as citizens of Northern Ireland is make sure that we get the maximum impact from the restrictions in the next two weeks, that will make the difference."

Mr Swann said for practical purposes it is simply not possible to increase hospital capacity in the short to medium term.

"The key factor here is the supply of staff, and given the specialist skill set required, there is a very long lead time for this," he said.

"While some marginal gains in capacity can be made in specific areas such as ICU, this comes at the cost of reduced capacity elsewhere in the system, as it involves the redeployment of existing staff.

"In addition, when doubling time for cases is seven to 10 days, even a doubling of hospital capacity where that achievable would buy only a limited period of relief before intervention was required."

Queen's University in Belfast has launched a rapid Covid-19 testing programme for students.

Queen's is the first place in Northern Ireland to conduct asymptomatic testing on a large scale, and the third university in the UK-wide programme.

The testing will support students who hope to return home for Christmas.

Speaking at the launch of the mass rapid testing programme, Mr Swann said he was disappointed by photos of shoppers not adhering to social distancing guidelines.

On Saturday, photographs emerged of a long queue outside Primark in Castle Street in Belfast.

“I suppose one of the things I was very disappointed about was some photographs of people not following the simple guidance out there,” he said.

“That is spaces and faces and people not observing social distancing.

“We have a period of time before lockdown and I would ask people to use that time responsibly, to think of the responsibility to each other and to the retail sector.”

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