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Health Minister outlines Covid-19 surge plans for NI

Plans to get through the expected Covid-19 surge in the coming weeks have been detailed in the NI Assembly. Credit: PA

Health Minister Robin Swann says Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 surge plans will “come at a cost”, but will save lives.

The Minister detailed the first phase of health service measures, covering the immediate period to mid-April, which aim to prioritis eessential services and free up capacity across the system.

In a written statement to the Assembly, Minister Swann said: “Our health service will fast become unrecognisable.

“Changes that would have seemed unthinkable weeks ago will become the new norm. Decisions that would previously have taken months or even years will be taken in hours.”

There is no doubt that these measures come at a cost. They will be difficult for people to stick to. They will have significant social and economic impacts.

But they will save lives.

– Health Minister Robin Swann

The Health Minister outlined the potential impact of social distancing and other measures, saying they could reduce the peak of the coronavirus outbreak by “some 50%”.

He added that they could reduce deaths “by up to a third”.

Minister Swann said: “Planning assumptions indicate that 8% of infected people will require hospitalisation, 0.7% will require critical care, and 1% will die – although these figures will vary highly depending on age and other health factors.”

To staff across the health and social care sector, he said: “I am proud of you and I commit to giving you my full support in the days and months ahead.”

The words ‘thank you’ seem woefully inadequate in the circumstances, but they still need to be said – on behalf of everyone across our society.

– Health Minister Robin Swann

Minister Swann also appealed to the general public.

“We all must continue to rigidly follow the advice on hand-washing and ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ when we cough or sneeze and use a tissue. I cannot emphasise this enough,” he said.

“This will help keep more of our family members, neighbours and friends well and, by doing so, reduce pressures on our health service.

“As I have already stated publicly, doing the right thing is essential if the health and social care system is to get through this.

“This also includes following all the social distancing guidance to the letter - not just today, tomorrow and next week, but throughout the months ahead, for as long as it takes.”

Surge plans

  • testing capacity will be expanded to around 800 Covid-19 tests per day, to extend the availability of testing to frontline health and social care staff
  • exploring radical ways to enhancing workforce capacity - third year nursing and midwifery students within the last six months of qualifying will be redeployed to clinical care in the next 10-14 days and will provide support of up to 880 senior nursing and midwifery students; final year medical students at QUB Medical School will join the medical register four months earlier than originally envisaged and will accordingly become immediately available to assist medical teams across NI hospitals
  • all Trusts have identified specific wards to provide additional bed capacity to respond to the needs of people with Covid-19 who need hospital admission
  • some 40 additional mechanical ventilators (30 adult units and 10 paediatric units) have been ordered, bringing the total available in Northern Ireland to 179 by the end of March
  • plans are in place to rapidly increase the number of critical care beds as necessary
  • all Trusts are halting non-urgent appointments, investigation and procedures to redeploy key staff to support the care of people admitted to hospital because of Covid-19 - outpatient appointments, day case and elective inpatient services will be maintained for urgent cases and surgery for the treatment of cancer and other urgent procedures will continue
  • all Trusts will apply appropriate restrictions on the number of visitors permitted
  • all HSC Trusts will be focusing sustained attention on ensuring patients who are medically well are safely and rapidly discharged from hospital, with appropriate care arrangements, to ensure hospital beds are available for any increase in admissions
  • routine GP work will be adjusted or suspended in the first number of weeks of the epidemic - requests for consultations will be telephone triaged and an increased proportion of patients will have advice provided by telephone consultation
  • community pharmacies will endeavour to deliver an increased proportion of prescriptions, hence avoiding the need for people to travel to them
  • services will be prioritised for those most in need - the vulnerable and those at risk of harm - this will include core children’s and young people’s services, older people’s services, mental health services, and learning disability services