Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland 'turning a corner' in Covid battle as rapid testing in key work sectors begins

Rapid testing using 'lateral flow testing' works in a similar fashion to a pregnancy test and can detect the presence of Covid-19 within in less than 30 minutes
Rapid testing using 'lateral flow testing' works in a similar fashion to a pregnancy test and can detect the presence of Covid-19 within in less than 30 minutes

NORTHERN Ireland is "turning a corner" in the fight against coronavirus but needs to "keep going", Robin Swann has said.

The health minister yesterday announced an expansion of rapid Covid testing in workplaces where there are more than 50 employees providing key services.

Four main sectors can initially avail of the tests - agri-food, manufacturing, retail and construction - as these staff cannot work from home and are more exposed to infection.

Results are given in less than 30 minutes, an initiative that will allow a return to as "normal a society as possible".

At a weekly media briefing, Mr Swann stressed vaccination was "not the only line of defence" and that "test and trace" was vital.

Matt Wills, who heads up the mass testing programme, also attended the briefing and confirmed plans are being examined to extend rapid tests to smaller high street retailers.

However, "the low-hanging fruit" key sectors had priority, he said.

Meanwhile, with more than 600,000 people in the north innoculated with their first jabs in what is being lauded as a major success story, the rollout of the vaccination programme continues ahead of schedule.

Despite the delivery of a massive consignment this week - the biggest number of doses to date - Mr Swann urged caution.

Speaking ahead of today's crunch Executive meeting on the re-opening of schools with Education Minister Peter Weir lobbying for P1-P3 children to remain in classes after March 22, Mr Swann said:

"I fully understand calls for restrictions to be relaxed and I understand the impatience, however, we still have to tread carefully and never underestimate this virus.

"We have to build steadily on the progress we had, because we are turning the corner, so let's keep going."

Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride also stressed the need for "caution and vigilance", making a direct appeal to young people in the run-up to St Patrick's Day and Easter to respect the guidelines and "not mix".

Dr McBride told the briefing that the battle against Covid-19 "is not over, let alone won" but accepted that people "cannot stay locked down forever".

"I know that some have indicated that they believe that we are being too cautious, however, it's my job and others' job and my absolute duty to set out the public health position based on the evidence and to explain the uncertainties so that all decisions are fully informed," he said.

"That includes the inevitability as restrictions ease and more mixing happens, some will get very sick.

"Against all of that, we cannot stay locked down forever. The restrictions themselves are hugely damaging to society and to individuals. It has damaged lives and it has damaged livelihoods."

When asked if he was concerned about a further Covid wave in the autumn, the CMO there was a potential for a spike in cases if restrictions are eased too quickly.

He also expressed concerns about the highly infectious Kent variant, which now accounts for most coronavirus cases on the island, and said it was "highly likely" they would see more super-spreader events.