Worsening Covid crisis emphasises need for clear messaging from Stormont
IF anyone was still in any doubt about the gravity of the coronavirus crisis and the perilous situation in which Northern Ireland now finds itself, Belfast Trust's decision to cancel urgent cancer surgeries should be an emphatic wake-up call.
It is a distressing example of what it means for the health service to be at 'breaking point' because of Covid-19.
As well as postponing surgery, the trust has appealed to staff - already over-stretched and exhausted - to voluntarily postpone any planned leave.
The ferocity of the virus's third surge is already surpassing anything experienced during the height of the first wave last spring.
In Belfast, the number of Covid patients needing hospital beds has increased by 80 per cent since Christmas - and it is thought that worse is to come.
In the last seven days, more than 11,000 people have tested positive for Covid; to put that in some context, it means that last week alone accounted for 13 per cent of the total number of positive cases recorded since the pandemic began.
This will almost certainly lead to even more intense pressure on hospitals in the days and weeks to come.
That prospect, as well as the steadily rising death toll - 82 in the last seven days, compared to 78 in the previous seven days - informed the Stormont Executive's decision to introduce the lockdown measures which came into force yesterday.
While the reasons for lockdown may be clear, the executive's messaging around the restrictions is fuzzy, as has largely been the case since last summer.
Stormont compares particularly unfavourably to other regions. In Scotland, for example, Nicola Sturgeon is able to deliver clear, consistent and timely messages in a professional fashion.
In contrast, the executive's response, particularly at this critical juncture, lacks focus and unity.
Meetings which start late, leaks via social media and separate statements to broadcasters at night - which aren't then followed up by media appearances to answer questions the following morning - are examples of Stormont's incoherence.
Citizens are being asked to make enormous sacrifices to suppress the virus, yet the executive appears to be intent on making it difficult, not easy, for people to understand the detail of the restrictions.
Tensions between the DUP and Sinn Féin may well be to blame. But the stakes are too high for that to be excused; as we enter a critical phase in the fight against coronavirus, Stormont needs urgently to find a united voice and leadership.