Minister announces tightening of restrictions

Date published: 20 August 2020

Statement from Health Minister Robin Swann

Minister Swann 16 April 2020

Earlier today a further 51 positive cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Northern Ireland.

I can confirm that at present R is likely to be around 1.3, and is definitely above 1. Many of us will by now understand the implications of that.

But I need to address what I believe to be a growing problem of some people dismissing the figures and becoming increasingly flippant in regards to the impact of this virus. Yes it’s true many of the recent cases have been within younger people and thankfully our hospital admissions have remained low, but that’s no excuse for complacency. The view from both the Modelling Group and the Strategic Intelligence Group is that hospital admissions will inevitably and sadly rise if cases continue to do so.

For those who think they are immune or know better, even if the virus has minor or no effects on some people, what about the other people that are being placed at risk just because some believe they are too busy to self-isolate, or have become overnight experts on the virus and foolishly believe it doesn’t pose a risk to them or their family.

This virus can and has took lives, it can destroy lives and thankfully the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland still recognise that. But to those armchair experts who think they know more than the actual experts the only thing I would say to them is think of the effect of your message has on undermining the health service and those who have sacrificed already.  

The indicators based on new positive tests show a further increase in transmission in the last week. The 7 day rolling average for new cases has increased, and overall the positivity rate has also been trending upwards.  The message on handwahsing

There has been much focus on the increasing numbers in the Mid and East Antrim Council area and so today I wish to provide a some further information on that.

Recently my Department and the Public Health Agency, supported by colleagues in DAERA and the Health and Safety Executive have been dealing with a significant and difficult outbreak in a meat processing plant within the Council area. As of yesterday evening there had been 35 cases identified within staff, and a further smaller number of positive cases with contacts. 

So supported by the advice of the PHA and Chief Medical Officer – the outbreak is so significant and so extensive that all the workers in the factory, and all recent visitors to the factory, should now be required to self-isolate. This in effect will see the managed closure of the factory. As a matter of priority all staff are to be tested in the coming hours and days and the plant will undergo a full deep clean during the period of closure.

Whilst this development may cause some concern, I would stress that it is by no means unique. There have been outbreaks in similar facilities in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. The Public Health Agency are on the ground and they will continue to offer and provide all relevant supports to the staff and local community.

And whilst there is not equal spread of the virus across Northern Ireland, with Local Government areas such as Fermanagh & Omagh and Mid Ulster still thankfully seeing few positive cases, on the whole I am becoming increasingly concerned with the increase in community transmission. 

As Minister for Health I have many responsibilities and demands, but when it comes to COVID-19 I have two main priorities. Those are to minimise the numbers of cases and deaths, and to ensure as far as possible that the healthcare system has the capacity to care for COVID-19 patients and care for all patients, present and future. As part of that incredibly difficult decisions have been necessary, and unfortunately will continue to be necessary.

And with the increasing prevalence of the virus I believe the time has come that we now take measures to slow the spread.

So in response to the increase in transmission during this afternoon’s meeting of the Executive I recommended that as a matter of urgency which was supported by the Executive:

  • The restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings should be tightened. This was agreed and therefore the number of persons that can participate will from next week be reduced from 30 to 15. Whilst the previous exemptions will continue to apply, the requirement for an organiser to carry out a risk assessment and put suitable measures in place will now apply to any gathering of more than 15 persons.
  • In addition the Executive also supported my recommendation that the current limit on people meeting in a private dwelling should be reduced from 10 individuals from up to 4 households, to 6 individuals from no more than 2 households.

These are not decisions I want to take, but decisions I had to take. Unless we take action now I fear it would soon have been too late to arrest the further extensive spread of the virus. And the Executive also recommended there would be no further relaxation of any other measures.

If we don’t act now as a society we would have failed, as an Executive we would have failed and as Minister I would have failed.

My Department continues to co-operate closely with the Police Service on COVID-19 regulations.

In common with colleagues across the UK, the PSNI's approach to the regulations has been based on the four E's - Engage, Explain, Encourage, then Enforce.

I support that approach. I believe the vast majority of people want to do the right thing - that enforcement is not needed in most cases and should normally be the last resort.

It's actually a good news story that widespread compliance on face coverings in shops is being achieved without a single fine being imposed so far. The same can be said for face coverings on public transport.

However, there are concerns about indoor gatherings - whether that be licensed premises or house parties. Sadly, through ignorance or self-centredness, a small minority of people are flouting the regulations and putting themselves and others at risk.

The PSNI has assured me that it is taking and will continue to take enforcement action where necessary. I believe that is particularly important in those districts which have seen sharp spikes in COVID-19 prevalence.

So I can confirm that focused PSNI enforcement action will be directed at these hotspot areas - in liaison with public health authorities and as part of a co-ordinated approach. And let me thank the Police Service and its officers for their ongoing contribution to keeping people safe.

On the whole however I have been hugely impressed by the responsibility and maturity shown by society to the restrictions.

The leaders of Northern Ireland's four main Christian churches should be commended for their advice yesterday that parishioners should wear face coverings during services.

Similarly I very much welcome the constructive approach from Hospitality Ulster, and commend the clear and robust leadership it is showing to the sector.

I also want to thank all those pub and hotel operators who are acting responsibly and working to keep customers and staff safe.

This is an incredibly difficult and challenging time for the hospitality industry. The Executive is very mindful of the vital role this sector plays in our economy and of the need to support it through this period.

That support must include clamping down on the minority of rogue operators who are not following public health advice.

Let me also make something clear. I don’t want to be imposing any lockdowns at all. I don’t want to be restricting anyone’s freedoms.

I want to see our economy building itself back up. I know how important economic advancement is to the health and welfare of our citizens.

What I am saying to everyone is – we can still avoid the return of a lockdown if we all do the right thing. We can fight back against COVID-19 and we know what needs to be done.

Robin Swann
Minister of Health

Notes to editors: 

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