Northern Ireland news

Leading doctor calls on Executive to sanction full lockdown similar to Republic's with schools remaining open

Chair of the BMA's GP committee, Dr Tom Black, has called on Stormont leaders to urgently impose stringent lockdown restrictions to prevent the health service from being overwhelmed
Seanín Graham

A doctors’ union and a business organisation were at loggerheads last night after the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland chair said reopening hospitality later this month would be an “act of careless vandalism”.

The Belfast Chamber described Dr Tom Black’s comments as “inaccurate, extreme and unhelpful”. The Derry GP said the north faces a key moment in the pandemic.

He called on the executive to keep the hospitality sector closed and introduce a fresh shutdown of non-essential shops, churches and gyms.

He said schools must remain open but that he sees “no argument for places of worship, gyms, non-essential retail and certainly not for hospitality... to remain open during the worst pandemic and the biggest second wave we’ve ever seen”.

Dr Black launched an attack on Stormont's leaders for failing to introduce a full lockdown similar to the Republic's.

"We’ve an expert BMA panel of infectious disease consultants. It's s a UK wide panel and they’re telling us we need to keep schools open. The transmission rate isn’t a big risk and that for the sake of the children’s mental health, their general well being and their academic achievement, schools must remain open. That’s an argument we’ve been persuaded by," he told The Irish News.

A crunch executive meeting will take place tomorrow and comes days after First Minister Arlene Foster insisted that the current four-week circuit breaker will end on November 13, with the re-opening of pubs and restaurants.

Read More: International travel for non-essential reasons 'is not safe' says Republic's chief medical officer

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill however has stressed that any easing of restrictions is to be "reviewed", with the onus on keeping the R rate below 1.

Dr Black, who has been based in the Bogside for over 25 years, said politicians must "do the right thing."

Over the past week, more than 5000 people have tested positive for coronavirus with 1000 cases among the more at risk over 60s.

Hospitals are operating at almost full capacity with just 15 ICU beds available yesterday.

"I think what the Executive is proposing hasn't worked elsewhere. We need to see what has worked. The Republic of Ireland is a great example of what has worked. First, they brought in level 4 restrictions for Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal when the rates were higher in Northern Ireland," Dr Black said.

"Then they very quickly brought in level 5 restrictions and their rates are now 110 per 100,000. In Derry we’re 340 and in NI in general we’re about 260. So we’re more than twice as high as Republic.

"Our wards and our ICUs are full and some of those patients admitted will become severely ill next week because that’s how this virus works. They will need ICU the week after. The health service is hanging by a thread with more and more sick people coming towards us."

The medic said he had "great sympathy" with the the hospitality industry but added if action wasn't taken now, the 'plateau' of infections could last another three months.

Failing to close down the sector would be an "act of careless vandalism", he added.

"This is the key moment to introduce lockdown otherwise the plateau will last longer and do even more damage to the physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing of our society," he said.

"The Executive act on behalf of the public. It is the public interest here that they want and expect a health service for their relatives, particularly the old and the vulnerable.

"We cannot promise them an effective health service if the wrong decisions are made on Thursday. They have to bring in a lockdown, they cannot ease the restrictions or we will lose control of the health service. We have made our point clearly and forcefully. We now expect our politicians to listen to that, respond to that and do the right thing."

Sinn Féin health committee chair Colm Gildernew last night said the BMA chief was "reflecting the reality of what he was seeing on the ground" and called on the Executive to "come forward with a strategy that will not lead us going into a series of lockdowns".

"The Department of Health must also ensure they have a proper find, trace, isolate and support system in place - it is the only way out," he said.

But Simon Hamilton, who heads up the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and is a former DUP health minister, last night hit back at Dr Black's "extreme" language.

"Everyone understands the pressures our health service is under but the use of the word ‘vandalism’ is inaccurate, extreme and unhelpful. We all need to be on the same page and work together to protect lives and protect livelihoods," he tweeted.

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