Up Close: Unlocking the Virus

UTV's Paul Reilly talks to Health Minister Robin Swann for UP Close: Unlocking the Virus.
Paul Reilly talks to Health Minister Robin Swann during the programme. Credit: UTV

I’ll never forget Joan Fulton’s words to me: “Give these people a face.”

She didn’t want her brother Billy Allan to be remembered as just a number.

The 67-year-old was taken to hospital by ambulance last March and, as Billy said goodbye to Joan, he gave her his wallet - something he always did before going into hospital.

Joan still has that wallet. Covid-19 took Billy’s life within 72 hours.

He was Northern Ireland’s third victim of this deadly virus.

Billy Allan is remembered by his sister Joan. Credit: Family photo

Despite her grief, Joan wanted to warn others. She recorded a powerful video message which was broadcast on UTV Live the day after Billy’s death.

There was a dawning realisation when I walked out of the studio that evening of how many more families were going to experience the same pain.

Up Close: Unlocking the Virus opens by asking where we begin to describe the last 12 months.

Very few lives have been untouched by Covid-19.

Unlocking the Virus reflects those moments of loss, fear and hope.

Experts highlight the warning signs that existed, discuss what had - or hadn’t - been learned from previous pandemics, and attempt to explain why perhaps we weren’t more prepared for this.

Robin Swann took the ministerial oath of office on 11 January 2020.

He inherited a health service that was already creaking.

Within weeks, he and the newly formed Executive were reacting to an unfolding global pandemic.

Mr Swann tells Up Close about his early mortality calculations and speaks frankly about the dark moments he faced.

Health Minister Robin Swann has experienced some dark days dealing with the pandemic. Credit: UTV

We also hear from Dr Julia Courtney, a respiratory consultant at the Ulster Hospital.

Perhaps you’ll recognise her from a video plea she made on social media just before lockdown last year.

She asked people to stick to the public health advice. She and her colleagues were already fearful of what was coming down the tracks.

Dr Courtney tells us about the comfort she and countless others in the health service gave to Covid patients in their last moments.

This programme has been a journey for all of us involved in making it.

We look back, but we also analyse how science and medicine has responded like never before. Unlocking the Virus also looks ahead to how the future could take shape.

There are lots of reasons to be hopeful. The vaccination process continues apace, and the science community’s quest continues to find solutions to variants, monitor antibodies, and provide answers to so many other unknowns.

It’s given me a much greater appreciation for the research and medical breakthroughs that will hopefully allow me to give my mum a big hug very soon.