Northern Ireland news

Eight of NI's 12 hospitals beyond capacity as Robin Swann warns 'decisive action' needed

Health minister Robin Swann said he would put forward "robust interventions" to executive colleagues today. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wir
Seanín Graham

EIGHT of Northern Ireland's 12 major hospitals were operating beyond capacity for the first time yesterday, as Robin Swann warned that "decisive action" is needed to suppress Covid.

The health minister was speaking ahead of an Executive meeting in which he is expected to propose tough restrictions following the temporary easing of measures over Christmas.

Despite a shutdown of many businesses earlier this month, cases and hospital admissions remain "too high" with 510 people testing positive yesterday and a further 457 in hospital, of which 32 were in ICU. Eight more people also died.

It has emerged the north's infection rates are now four times higher than the Republic's, which Taoiseach Micheál Martin described as "very worrying and concerning", particularly for border counties.

He also questioned testing capacity as a leading virologist highlighted that northern cases could be "potentially even higher".

Dublin-based virologist Dr Gerald Barry said all close contacts of positive cases in the Republic are tested twice in a 14-day period - but testing is only offered to people with symptoms in the north.

"Some of those contacts in the south will come back as positives even if they're asymptomatic. So arguably you could look at the north's positive cases and say they're not a direct comparison to us as they're not testing contacts - therefore your cases could even be higher.

"We are also doing a lot of asymptomatic testing in relation to household transmission as well serial testing of workers in meat processing plants and nursing homes where there is high risk."

Latest figures show Enniskillen's South West Hospital, the Causeway in Coleraine and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast facing some of the worst problems in terms of bed capacity.

It comes after Antrim Area Hospital medics were forced to treat ambulance patients in a car park on Tuesday evening due to spike in Covid admissions and staff shortages.

Mr Swann, who warned the threat of coronavirus will hang over Christmas and "cast a shadow well into January", said he would put forward "robust interventions" to executive colleagues today.

Current guidelines allow for three household bubbles to come together indoors between December 23 to 27, but Wales has already reduced this to two.

There is speculation that a new lockdown could be enforced in late December.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said she intends to make the "right decision" and "not the popular one".

Meanwhile, the Republic recorded six further deaths and 431 new cases yesterday, with Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan warning of "significant and concerning indicators" that the disease "is moving in the wrong direction".

During a recent six-week lockdown, the south's infection rates fell to among the lowest in Europe.

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Northern Ireland news