Leading article

Respite for business may be shortlived as minister warns of pre-Christmas restrictions

It is now apparent that the unsatisfactory compromise reached by the Stormont Executive last week has provided neither certainty for business nor an effective way forward for a health service under immense pressure.

After a fractious four days which saw the DUP push for the reopening of the economy while the other four parties supported a two week extension of the circuit breaker, we arrived at an outcome which the health minister voted for only reluctantly and which he believed did not go far enough.

Close contact services such as hairdressers, as well as cafes and coffee shops, can open from Friday with the rest of the hospitality sector due to reopen on November 27.

However, Robin Swann said he would be coming back to the executive before that date with proposed changes for hospitality, which he said could not yet open up 'the way we knew.'

The health minister also said it is likely he will be asking for further coronavirus restrictions before Christmas, a warning that was echoed by the chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young yesterday.

Professor Young said the four week circuit-break had slowed the spread of the virus but added that that decline is now slowing.

We can see from the Department of Health's daily dashboard just how many Covid-19 patients are ill enough to require a hospital bed or a ventilator, the numerous occasions when our hospitals are working at or beyond capacity and the number of people waiting to be admitted.

Patients hit by the virus are being treated but the wider healthcare system is suffering.

Last week, Dr Cathy Jack, head of the Belfast health trust, warned that non-Covid patients who have major operations postponed for conditions including cancer, are at risk of dying.

As this newspaper revealed yesterday, kidney transplants have been suspended in the north because of coronavirus fears and the demand for critical care at the Nightingale hospital.

Relaxing restrictions while the health service is struggling is a strategy fraught with danger and now we hear that the respite for businesses may be shortlived if further curbs are needed before Christmas.

And of course, we haven't really got started on what sort of festive period we might expect or what advice will be given about gatherings or travel, bearing in mind that our actions during December may well lead to another spike in coronavirus cases in the new year.

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Leading article