Health Minister Robin Swann has said the mounting death toll in Northern Ireland is on a scale not seen during ‘worst of the Troubles’ as he warned that social distancing will continue in some form for many months.
Speaking at today’s COVID-19 press briefing he said ‘we stand with the shadow of 20 further deaths to COVID-19 hanging over us bringing the total in NI to 329.’
He said these deaths must never become statistics as they are all people who were ‘loved and cherished’.
“My thoughts and sympathies are very much with their loved ones and I want to make a direct appeal to anyone who is having doubts about the seriousness of the threat from COVID-19.
“I also want to address anyone who is tempted to relax their guard on social distancing.
“Let them think about the 20 families grieving today, let them think about those who have lost their lives, let them think about the key workers that have perished across these islands and who we remembered with a minute’s silence today.
“Because we all need to keep doing the right thing by social distancing. The vast majority of people are continuing to do that.
“Countless sacrifices in daily lives have been made and it has been worth it because as a result we have been beginning to see some tentative improvements: the number of patients in Intensive Care Units (ICU) continues to fall.”
The press conference heard that there were 34 COVID patients in ICU as of earlier today and that was down from 57 on the same day three weeks ago.
Whilst overall the trends of admissions to hospital are falling there are still 119 COVID-related admissions as of yesterday.
The Health Minister said: “But we must not lose our nerve or loosen our grip now, there is too much and too many lives at stake.
“As the chief scientific advisor warned earlier this month ‘Northern Ireland remains on a knife-edge’, and whilst I’m confident that we will have the capacity in our hospitals to cope, bed occupancy remains at a very manageable 67%, we must remain especially mindful of the impact this virus is having on our care homes.”
More money and more staff have been made available to care homes in their fight against the virus. The minister said he’s also asked for testing to be dramatically scaled up with testing for all residents and staff reporting outbreaks or clusters of infections and the chief medical officer (CMO) will comment on that shortly.
Mr Swann said that it was wrong for anyone to claim that this has been ‘overblown’ and urged people not to undo the good work to this point by allowing complacency to creep in.
The spread of the virus so far across the community has not been as serious as first feared, he acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean the warnings were misplaced, it means the warnings were taken seriously and people stayed at home and kept their distance.
He added: “Remember too that despite the intensive efforts across our community, the impact of COVID-19 has been devastating
“We had our first death in Northern Ireland on the 19th of March and look where we are now.
“The mounting death toll is already on a scale not seen even during the worst of the Troubles.
“That’s how serious this is, so please keep doing what you are doing staying and home to save lives.
“Please cooperate and support the police as they enforce these emergency regulations, this is not easy but it has to be done.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a massive physical toll on us all but we must not however lose sight of the potentially catastrophic impact it will have on emotional well-being and all of our own mental health.”
The health minister continued: “That is why I believe now was the appropriate time to commence the process of appointing a mental health champion for Northern Ireland and I would reassure all those listening that a time will come when we will be able to ease some of the restrictions – but that time is not now.
“I know the public will forgive me for being cautious about that. I don’t want to start speculating on potential dates because we haven’t reached that stage yet.
“I don’t want people thinking or acting like it is imminent because it is not.
“But people rightly want to be treated like adults and also to be assured that this lockdown will not drag on forever because it won’t.
“It will stay for as long as is needed and no longer.”
Next phase planning is now taking place and the minister assured the public that he will be open and honest with everyone about the options and choices that lie ahead.
“It will not be like flicking a switch and going back to the old ways. Social distancing will be with us in some form for many months.
“We have decisions to make too on how we start ramping up vital hospital services that were scaled back to prepare for the coronavirus surge. That includes cancer care and mental health provision and those decisions are under active consideration,” he concluded.
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