Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann has said “there will be a need for more restrictions between now and Christmas, if we’re to get our health service through the winter pressures.”
The minister was speaking after visiting the new Nightingale hospital due to open in Co Antrim on Friday, in a bid to ease the pressure on acute services.
The facility will help rehabilitate Covid-19 patients who are well enough to leave acute hospitals, but who would benefit from care that cannot be provided at home – with treatment including therapy to improve mobility after periods of being bed-ridden and suffering from fatigue.
Mr Swann and Chief Nursing Officer Professor Charlotte McArdle visited the site at Whiteabbey Hospital on Wednesday afternoon.
“This is yet another example of our health service adapting at speed to the challenges created by this pandemic,” Mr Swann said.
“This new model of nursing and enhanced therapy care is about providing the right care in the right place at the right time by the multi-disciplinary team - one of the cornerstones of the transformation agenda for health and social care.”
The first phase will provide an additional 23 beds with further expansion to follow.
It will be run by the Northern Health and Social Care Trust and will be available to patients from across Northern Ireland.
Care will be led by experienced advanced nurses and healthcare workers, while medical treatment will be provided by GPs.
When fully operational, Whiteabbey will provide up to 100 beds.
Audrey Harris, the trust’s director for medicine, said 70 people were delayed in hospital during the last Covid-19 surge who could have benefited from rehabilitation.
“These patients are deconditioned and far from what their normal level of function would be,” she said.
“Fatigue and psychological well-being are all huge issues for people who are post-Covid.
“When I talk about fatigue, I mean fatigue as in their ability to carry out the daily activities, the fatigue in their muscles where their mobility will be restricted.”
Northern Ireland’s main Nightingale hospital for acute patients, at Belfast City Hospital, was stood down after the peak of the first wave of the pandemic passed last spring.
It reopened earlier this autumn following sustained growth in the number of patients requiring admission on ventilation.
At one stage, hospitals were at more than full capacity and in full surge emergency stance.
Several hospitals across Northern Ireland have cancelled elective procedures to cope with the added coronavirus pressures.
At Wednesday evening’s press conference, Stormont chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said that, following the imposition of recent restrictions, the virus R rate had fallen to 0.8 for two weeks and was now close to one.
He added: “The reduction in cases and in particular hospital bed occupancy is less than we had hoped for.”
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said: “The current restrictions are having an impact.
“R is slowing, the spread of infection – however, not enough nor sufficient to get us through the challenges of the next few months.”
He said there was a real prospect of being in a different place by next spring or summer due to vaccine development and rapid testing being pursued.
He added they were considering mass testing of students to help everyone come home for Christmas.
The health minister also confirmed that a number of threats had been made against him, which the police and courts were dealing with.
However, Mr Swann said he had declined to take up any extra personal security as he felt it would “be a very wrong signal to send out”.
He added that he had been “humbled” by messages of support for the health service and healthcare workers in recent weeks.