Speaking at the daily NI Executive Covid-19 press briefing today, Health Minister Robin Swann said we must never lose sight that the virus is still spreading, it’s still making people seriously ill and sadly people are still passing away.
Today a further two deaths were announced and once again my thoughts and prayers are with those families at this deeply distressing time.
Watching the news over recent days, and seeing the long queues to get into shops and the crowds of young people gathering in our parks and on our beaches, I am concerned.
Whilst the vast majority of people are continuing to do the right thing, it does appear that for some people the compliance with the restrictions and social distancing measures is starting to fray.
Our battle against Covid-19 is very finely balanced.
Yes, we have made important progress against it. We have flattened that curve, and saved many lives. As a result of that immense effort, we have started the process of cautiously and gradually edging out of lockdown.
But we are still at a very early and tentative stage of that process. It wouldn’t take that much to tip the reproductive spread of the virus over the all-important 1 figure.
I would also remind people that this is not an extended public holiday. People are staying at home, or working from home, for good medical and scientific reasons.
The messages that mattered at the start of this pandemic are just as important now. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. Practice good hygiene and good social distancing.
Covid-19 remains a deadly and highly infectious virus.
Please don’t flout the public health guidance. Don’t think this is all over.
That kind of complacency will undo the progress we have all achieved so far. It would ruin any hopes of further relaxations of the lockdown.
I know people are enjoying the small freedoms that have been returned to them in recent weeks. With those freedoms comes more responsibility.
People have more discretion now on activities outside their homes. And they will have to exercise their own judgements at times.
How important is your planned activity? Does it involve any potential increased risk to you or others? Can you be sure you will be able to maintain social distancing and good hygiene?
Please be careful. Be cautious. And stay safe.
I know the young people featured in the news reports in recent days won’t take kindly to being lectured. So I won’t do that.
I know they have made massive sacrifices in recent months, putting their lives on hold – mainly for older generations.
There is frustration clear, impatience and pent-up energy. I get that.
My message is simple. Don’t put yourselves and others at risk.
Keep your distance when you are out and about and meeting up with friends.
I know “wash your hands” is the kind of thing you were told when you were three. But this is different. This could be a matter of life and death, if not for you but someone you love.
It has to be stressed and stressed again that the threat from Covid-19 is still very much with us.
Contact tracing is well underway. In the last 24 hours, 27 calls were made to contacts of confirmed cases. Over the last 7 days there were 289 calls made to close contacts of confirmed cases.
Yet I am also acutely aware that Coronavirus is not the only thing killing people. I remain very concerned that not all people that should be contacting their GP or attending their local hospital are doing so.
Whilst Covid will be with us for some time, in order to deliver all its other important work such as cancer screening and elective services, I am clear that the health service must adapt.
My Department is working closely with each of the local Trusts and I have now received a Phase 1 Rebuilding Plan from each. I will be providing more information on these plans shortly.
Similarly I am pleased to announce that the Health and Social Care Board today has also released plans for a phased return of dental services across Northern Ireland.
Of course care homes remain at the forefront of our battle against the virus and it is essential that they are provided with as much support as possible.
Testing remains a key component. The latest figures are that over 6,600 of our residents and almost 7,600 of our staff have been tested. That’s around 50% of each. Thankfully the number of closed outbreaks is still continuing to grow.
And today, I am announcing a new funding package of £11.7m to support care homes.
This financial package will enable homes to pay staff 80% of their salary when on sick leave for COVID-19 related reasons. It will also provide support with cleaning costs and the provision of specialist equipment.
Northern Ireland is far from unique in experiencing Covid-19 tragedies in our care homes. One life lost is one too many and each one of these deaths is a matter of great regret.
It is vital that lessons are learned locally, nationally and internationally.
I can confirm that a Rapid Learning Initiative is underway, to identify key lessons from care home experiences of Covid-19. This will involve input from the care home sector and from across the Health and Social Care system.
I am on record as saying that we need to take a long hard look at how we as a society provide social care.
Covid-19 has brought home to us all the pressing need for reform and investment in this sector.
Improving regulation of care homes is an essential part of social care reform.
A review of regulation is ongoing and is of crucial importance. Under the existing legislative framework, care homes are registered and regulated as independent entities. I am keen to explore ways of strengthening accountability when care home providers repeatedly fall short of regulatory standards across a number of different homes under their control.
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