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Editorial: Winter health warnings must be heeded

The Stormont Executive held its first face-to-face meeting in nearly a year yesterday, against a backdrop of persistently high infection figures and dire warnings about the pressures facing the health service.

Given the current situation, there will be absolutely no surprise that senior health officials recommended that ministers should not ease any of the remaining Covid-19 regulations and guidance.

Indeed, it would be irresponsible for the executive to ignore not just the data but also the concerns being expressed by front line health care staff and those whose job it is to manage our hospitals and wider services.

On Wednesday, health minister Robin Swann painted a particularly bleak picture of the winter period ahead.

He warned that if all caution was dropped, the health service could be overwhelmed, resulting in a 'nightmare scenario' of emergency departments so overcrowded and compromised that they would have to close their doors.

Belfast Trust chief executive Cathy Jack, described the workforce as exhausted and demoralised, with depleted numbers due to staff vacancies and absence due to Covid and stress.

She urged more people to come forward for vaccination, pointing out that over 70 per cent of Covid patients in ICU are unvaccinated.

''If Covid is allowed to spread freely in society, and the vaccination rate does not rise beyond 90 per cent, we will face a grim winter ahead,'' she said.

These warnings must be heeded and it is only sensible that people continue to adhere to the advice on mask wearing and social distancing in the weeks and months ahead.

The possible introduction of vaccine certificates for entry to bars and restaurants is also under discussion with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood strongly backing the move.

This is certainly a decision that needs to be given serious consideration, involving consultation with the hospitality industry and informed by the experience of the Republic, where such passports have been in use for some weeks and where vaccine uptake is high.

Having returned to the executive table yesterday, it is clear that ministers are still assessing a range of options, with a review planned for October 7.

Michelle O'Neill has insisted the executive will take a cautious and prudent approach.

The decisions taken in the next few weeks will be crucial to how we get through a potentially difficult winter.

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