'Unrealistic' to think all restrictions will be lifted on March 5, Robin Swann says
It would be unrealistic to think all lockdown restrictions will be lifted on March 5, the health minister has said.
A four-week extension to the current six-week lockdown was approved yesterday by the Executive, leaving it in place until March 5.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster show Health Minister Robin Swann said it had not been an easy decision.
"Can I say that'll we'll have to extend them at that point [March 5]? At this time, no I can't.
"But it would, I think, be unrealistic to think that we'd be able to lift every restriction come that date, because we do see where this virus is going, the trajectory it's taking, the large number of positive cases that we are managing, but also the large number of hospital admissions that we currently have.
"I think there has to be a consideration and planning put into place, we know Covid's going to be with us for a very long time, we also know it will take time for our vaccination process to kick in and have that major effect."
Two days ago the health minister announced that 100 British military personnel were being deployed to help in the north's overhwhelmed hospitals. The medical technicians will be working in the Nightingale facility at the City Hospital in Belfast to help the north's overhwhelmed health service.
On Friday there were 828 Covid-positive inpatients in hospitals, of whom 72 are being treated in intensive care with 52 on ventilation. Yesterday, the department recorded 806 patients in hospital with 70 in intensive care. Read more
Speaking yesterday at a meeting of the Stormont health committee Sinn Féin's Pat Sheehan said he was concerned that the military personnel would "get in the way of the real professionals who are doing the work to save lives".
"This is slamming the dead cat down on the table to deflect attention away from the inadequacies in the health department at the minute."
Mr Swann told Good Morning Ulster he was "disappointed and disgusted" by Mr Sheehan's comments.
"The majority of our health service workers are actually welcoming them, because this is a tough period of time that we are entering into in the health service.
"To hear some of the comments where he's actually, I think, criticising the level of delivery that our health service has given over these past 10-12 months, I think is disappointing."
He added: "I have always found Pat's contributions to the committee as being constructively challenging, but I am disappointed by the language he used.
"It wouldn't be the language that would be reflective of his party leadership in regards to the assistance that we're receiving from the army."
Asked about Mr Sheehan's comments yesterday Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said Sinn Féin's priority has "always been to save lives" and it would "never rule out anything that actually supports the health service".
"In terms of disruption to service, that's the job of the health minister, chief nursing officer and also the job of the trusts to make sure there is continuity of support and services in our hospitals."
She said she had not heard Mr Sheehan's comments or what anyone else had said at the health committee meeting as she had been in an Executive meeting all day, adding that her remarks reflected the Sinn Féin position.
First Minister Arlene Foster said she had spoken to British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace today to thank him for deploying the 100 medical technicians. The DUP leader said critics were demonstrating their intolerance.
"I was greatly saddened by those who have criticised this deployment for intolerant political reasons.
"They have placed their ideology before the needs of patients. That is an appalling indictment on their motivations in public life."
She recalled previous emergencies in Northern Ireland which required aid from others, such as receiving air support from the Republic's Air Corps for farmers with stranded animals.
"That is what neighbours do, they help each other in times of need.
"I welcomed the Defence Secretary's assurances of further assistance if it was needed and I reassured the Minister that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland welcomed the support."