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Editorial: Now is not time for mixed messages

IT is a depressing reality that barely a day goes by without a sobering reminder about the pressures our health service is operating under.

A system already struggling to cope under the weight of rising demand and staff shortages was forced to divert enormous resources towards a deadly virus that has now been linked to more than 3,500 deaths.

But even with all we know about overstretched hospitals and ever-lengthening waiting lists, two warnings issued yesterday brought home the enormity of the situation.

In a written ministerial statement, Robin Swann said the health and social care system is "most likely facing into the most difficult winter ever experienced”.

He said it was "unheard of" for so many patients to be waiting on trolleys during the summer months, indicating the scale of the challenge awaiting during the normally busier winter period.

The health minister outlined a series of measures to support the system but said the best way is for the public to take up Covid and flu vaccines and do all they can to reduce spread of the virus - including by wearing face coverings.

It is this point that formed the basis of the second dire warning.

In an extraordinary intervention, Dr Tom Black of the British Medical Association said it was "madness" and "stupidity" for Stormont to be lifting restrictions at a time when the health service is overwhelmed.

The executive confirmed on Thursday that the legal requirement to socially distance in hospitality venues will end on October 31. Face coverings will also not be mandatory when nightclubs reopen that day.

Expressing bewilderment that restrictions are being eased for those with lowest rates of vaccination - around a quarter of those aged 18-29 have still not been jabbed - Dr Black warned this will inevitably lead to more infections, hospital admissions and deaths.

His concerns are shared by some ministers, with Alliance's Naomi Long also worried that relaxing rules on face coverings will increase transmission.

She and the SDLP's Nichola Mallon also support a vaccine passport system to ensure those entering high-risk environments are fully inoculated.

Anyone in doubt about the ongoing threat posed by Covid need only look at the daily data, with seven more deaths reported yesterday and infection rates worryingly high.

With a new form of the Delta variant detected and a history of heeding warnings too late, now is certainly not the time for mixed messaging from our political leaders.

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