Two more coronavirus deaths in Northern Ireland

Two further people with coronavirus have died in Northern Ireland, taking the region’s death toll to 15.

There were 49 new positive cases of Covid-19 reported on Saturday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in Northern Ireland to 324, according to the Public Health Agency.

The latest figures were outlined as a Stormont minister warned that the safety of agri-food and retail workers was “non-negotiable” during the emergency.

Also on Saturday, police expressed concern about reports of people visiting popular beaches in Co Down amid the ongoing restrictions on movement.

Controversy continues over whether social distancing rules are being safely applied by certain employers across the region.

Workers at several companies staged protest walkouts during the week.

The executive is establishing a forum to enable employers and trade unions to address concerns.

Stormont has faced criticism over a delay in publishing a definitive list of essential businesses, amid claims it has created confusion around which can and cannot remain open.

The list is expected at some point over the weekend, as are regulations that will enable police and health and safety inspectors to take specific enforcement actions over breaches of social distancing rules.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds said the agri-food and retail sectors were part of the “frontline response” to the crisis.

“They deserve the thanks of the entire community for working around the clock to put food on our tables,” she said.

“While many in the community can work at home, they continue to clock-on at farms, factories and shops.

“Therefore these workers must be protected in the workplace, all employers have a duty to ensure that they are. Their safety is non-negotiable and each of us has a duty to protect ourselves and keep those around us safe.”

Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said the food industry was “vital”.

“We want to express our support to the workforce who are out there and to ensure that they have the safety that they are looking for,” he said.

“We’re going to work with companies to ensure the appropriate protocols are adhered to and that they continue to seek to safeguard the workforce. We’re all in this together.”

Apprentice Boys parade in Derry
Apprentice Boys parade in Derry

Police Service of Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said officers had received reports of people visiting Tyrella and Murlough beaches in Co Down and the nearby town of Newcastle.

“The public should be well aware of the advice from our public health partners and the Government about social distancing and movement and, on that basis, we would encourage people not to drive to local beauty spots for their daily exercise as others may have the same idea and social distancing may not be achievable,” he said.

Northern Ireland continues to brace itself for a surge in cases.

Work is under way to establish large temporary field hospitals for coronavirus patients after modelling indicated that the current health service network may not have the capacity to cope at the peak of the outbreak.

A soon-to-be-decommissioned Army base in Co Down will be used as a temporary morgue if current body storage facilities are overwhelmed.

On Friday, doctors appealed for a complete lockdown in Northern Ireland amid fears not enough is being done to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Chairs of the city’s four GP federations wrote an open letter warning Northern Ireland’s politicians that current social distancing regulations were “not stringent enough”.

Medics who are dealing with the unfolding crisis continue to raise concerns about the standard and supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

On Friday, it was announced that the Stormont executive had made a joint order alongside the authorities in Ireland for a “significant” consignment of PPE from China.

Coronavirus testing in the region is expected to be significantly stepped up to 1,100 a day from next week but concerns persist that the rate is still lagging well behind testing regimes introduced in other countries battling the virus.