Northern Ireland news

Robin Swann: If we drive down infection rates, we have the opportunity of a better Christmas

 Robin Swann said while it is the duty of the chamber to hold the Executive to account and scrutinise policy decisions, he urged against a descent into “political point-scoring”.

Stormont health minister Robin Swann has made a “heartfelt plea for unity” in the Northern Ireland Assembly ahead of tough new coronavirus restrictions coming into force on Friday.

“The public are watching and are looking to us for united leadership,” he told MLAs on Monday.

Mr Swann said while it is the duty of the chamber to hold the Executive to account and scrutinise policy decisions, he urged against a descent into “political point-scoring”.

“The last few weeks have not seen devolution at its best. That is something of an understatement,” he said.

“Frustration and anger are widespread. We could spend hours in this chamber raking over the decisions that were made and not made.

“I have made my own views known inside and outside the Executive.

“Nevertheless, I fail to see where another bout of division and recrimination will get us now.”

Mr Swann urged all MLAs to promote public health guidance in an effort to ensure the new restrictions work in driving down the transmission of the virus.

“We have to give our hospitals and their heroic staff some vital breathing space,” he said.

“If we successfully drive down infection rates, we have the opportunity of a better Christmas.

“It won’t be a normal festive season by any means but we all have the power to help change the atmosphere.

“We can do that by abiding by the new restrictions and strictly following public health advice.

“I would urge all members to promote public health messaging at every opportunity. Please do not undermine it. Please choose your words carefully both inside and outside this House, today and in coming days and weeks.”

Mr Swann defended the decision of the Executive to back the new restrictions, saying without a decisive intervention the hospital system “would be at risk of becoming overwhelmed” in mid to late December.

“The reality is that, given our current position and the rates of transmission, there was no feasible alternative,” he told MLAs.

Turning to mass testing, Mr Swann said it would require a “very high degree of population buy-in” and present “huge logistical challenges”.

He said both Slovakia and Liverpool required military logistical support to deliver their programmes.

“It remains unclear whether the required number of tests would be available to us in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“I have written to the Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock to request four million rapid lateral flow device tests for Northern Ireland.”

He said mass testing would be of help but 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,” he said.

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

Mr Swann also said 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.”

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.”

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