Late night discussions for Executive over response to rising coronavirus cases

Late night talks are in store for the Stormont Executive as they meet to discuss the spiralling number of coronavirus cases.

Northern Ireland has seen a dramatic increase in positive Covid-19 cases in recent weeks.

A paper from Health Minister Robin Swann has warned that infection rates will continue rising if both schools and the hospitality sector remain open.

The weekly meeting of the powersharing administration, scheduled for Thursday, was brought forward in an indication that decisions on fresh restrictions are imminent amid rapidly increased virus spread.

The meeting had not started by 6.45pm.

Ministers are understood to be at odds over whether to close schools, with the DUP keen to keep them open.

First Minister Arlene Foster said the decisions to be made are not easy.

“We will have an Executive meeting later on this afternoon to discuss the issue and discuss what it is we can do as an Executive to try and halt the rise of Covid-19,” she told the Assembly on Tuesday afternoon.

“Some people have said it is about health versus wealth, I think that is a completely false analysis… poverty kills and unemployment kills as well. Therefore it is a balancing act between making sure that we deal with Covid-19 but that we also try and protect our economy, protect our society as we know it and indeed family life as we know it.

“These are huge decisions, none of them are easy.”

Earlier, it emerged that an intensive care unit at Northern Ireland’s Nightingale hospital has been reopened in response to escalating Covid admissions in Belfast.

The facility is not yet being stood up on a region-wide basis, but will be accepting Covid-19 patients being treated within the Belfast Trust area.

The Belfast Trust has also cancelled 105 planned surgeries at Belfast City Hospital and Musgrave Park Hospital for the next two weeks to free up staff to respond to the worsening coronavirus situation.

A further seven deaths with Covid-19 and another 863 cases were reported by the Department of Health on Tuesday.

Some 6,286 new positive cases of the virus have been detected in the last seven days, bringing the total number of cases in the region to 21,898.

There are currently 150 patients in hospitals with Covid-19, including 23 in intensive care.

Derry City and Strabane Council area remains the worst hit in Northern Ireland, with a case incidence rate of 970 per 100,000 people over the last seven days.

That is more than double the next highest rate, which is 462 per 100,000 in Belfast.

Mid Ulster now has a rate of 401, while the Newry, Mourne and Down Council area has a prevalence of 315 per 100,000.

Mid and East Antrim remains the areas with the lowest infection rate, at 95 per 100,000.

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young have already recommended a country-wide lockdown lasting four to six weeks.

Michael McBride
Michael McBride

The aim is to reduce the reproduction rate of the virus to below one infected for every person diagnosed.

Ministers have been warned that it is not considered likely that the R rate can be less than one with both schools and hospitality open.

Officials previously urged school closures for a period within the lockdown, though not necessarily for the entirety of it.

They have said action needs to be taken within days and have identified the six-week lockdown as providing the best chance of Northern Ireland reaching Christmas without the need for another.

HEALTH Coronavirus
HEALTH Coronavirus

Mrs Foster indicated on Monday that she is not in favour of closing schools.

The suggestion of a six-week, Northern Ireland-wide lockdown was questioned by a senior DUP MP.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson queried why such a move would be required across the region, given the marked variations in infection rates in different areas.