Northern Ireland news

'Field hospitals' and refrigerated lorries as temporary mortuaries: worst case scenario plans drawn up to tackle coronavirus in Northern Ireland

Health minister Robin Swann has confirmed coronavirus testing is to be increased in Northern Ireland
Seanin Graham

MARQUEES being used as 'field hospitals' and refrigerated lorries becoming temporary mortuaries are among proposals drawn up by health chiefs to deal with a mass outbreak of coronavirus in Northern Ireland.

The leaked measures are contained in "surge plans" developed by health trusts to tackle worst case scenarios of a Covid-19 spread and increased deaths.

The plans are due to be published tomorrow and relate to both the hospital and community care sector amid mounting concern about the UK response to the pandemic and shortages of life-saving hospital equipment.

While the north's health minister Robin Swann has pledged to increase the number of ventilators and intensive care beds, some frontline staff working in the community have privately expressed fears about access to specialist protective clothing worn when testing patients.

Two GPs based in Belfast contacted the Irish News yesterday with concerns about the limited number of infection control masks available to practices used by thousands of patients.

"We have six masks and infection control suits, which are single use only, while we have 5,000 patients," said one GP.

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"To date the focus has been on the hospital sector with very little information about what is happening in the community, when we are at the frontline for tens of thousands of patients."

Meanwhile, Mr Swann yesterday confirmed that the north's health system is working to "significantly increase" the number of tests for Covid-19, to support testing of NHS workers.

An extra 10 cases were confirmed in the north yesterday, bringing the total number to 62. However, the total number is estimated to much higher as testing is currently restricted to hospital patients and those with particular medical conditions.

Healthcare workers who have come into contact with symptomatic and/or positive cases also require testing.

The health minister also said yesterday that "major social distancing practices" are to "take effect" - which he accepted would cause "uncertainty and fear" in the community.

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He appealed for the public to be respectful of frontline staff working under immense pressure.

In yesterday's Irish News, it was revealed health officials are considering security at some pharmacies due to scenes of "panic" with people bulk buying.

Mr Swann said: "I have already said that we are facing into the biggest societal challenge in our lifetime. We all owe so much to those working right across health and social care. They are the best of us and they are going to be dealing with pressures that were unimaginable just weeks ago. We are significantly ramping up the system’s capacity to cope with the anticipated surge in patients," he said.

"...I would also again urge everyone to be patient with staff who are working through unprecedented pressures. Normal business in our health service will not be possible for months. Please respect and give space to nurses, doctors, pharmacists, social care staff, all those answering phones and everyone working across the system. I am hearing disturbing reports of examples of abusive behaviour. This has to stop and stop now."

Mr Swann appealed to the public to follow hand-washing advice.

And he said he was "heartened" by communities and neighbourhoods "rallying round and supporting older and vulnerable citizens".

"We need that collective spirit in abundance - a society-wide and Government-wide approach. Severe restrictions on our everyday life will be needed for months, not weeks. We will have to not only shield people from Covid-19, but from the economic and social consequences of the measures we are taking."

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