Northern Ireland sees biggest rise in Covid-19 cases as number infected hits 29

Northern Ireland has recorded its biggest increase so far in Covid-19 cases.

Health service activity will be “significantly curtailed” as doctors and nurses are marshalled to delay the spread of the infection, minister Robin Swann said.

Affected services will include non-urgent outpatient appointments, day cases, inpatient and diagnostic work.

Another nine positive cases were detected on Friday, bringing the tally to 29.

The heads of the devolved administration at Stormont are at loggerheads over whether schools should shut now in response to the threat.

Mr Swann said: “I want to be totally frank with the public about the scale of the challenge heading our way.

“Health services across the globe are coming under severe pressure. Ours is no different.

“We have now started freeing up resources in our health service to provide hospital care for the most seriously ill Covid-19 patients.”

The process of scaling back provision will be phased in over the days and weeks ahead.

Suspect cancer cases and other urgent care will continue.

Anyone displaying symptoms has been urged to self-isolate.

The devolved department in charge of benefits announced the temporary removal of the three-day waiting period for statutory sick pay.

People who need to self-isolate for medical reasons to protect others will be treated as being ill.

Venues for health services may change as providers try to manage and centralise in a bid to maintain services.

For patients who need follow up as outpatients, health authorities are planning for greater use of telephone contact and other digital technology.

Stormont Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said schools, universities and colleges in Northern Ireland should close.

She claimed the public were concerned and fearful and the difference with the Republic of Ireland’s approach was causing confusion.

The Republic has implemented blanket closures and teachers just a few miles away from each other across the open Irish border are following different official approaches.

Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster has backed the UK-wide strategy to keep public institutions open for now.

Her Sinn Fein counterpart said: “Now is the time to take action and ensure the schools, universities and colleges are closed and that needs to happen immediately.”

She said large numbers of parents had decided not to send their children to classes today and the government needed to listen to the public.

She added: “People are fearful.”

Her volte-face from Thursday when she backed the decision to keep schools open was made “on the back of public concern that is clearly there and the angst there among the public”.

She declared: “Now is the time to take action.”

Medical officials in Belfast are wary of acting too soon before there is evidence of community transmission, meaning the path of the virus cannot be traced.

European health authorities and the World Health Organisation have urged early and serious action.

In Ireland, schools, colleges, childcare facilities, museums and other tourist attractions have been closed in a major lockdown aimed at thwarting the spread of the virus and guided by European and scientific experts.

Ms O’Neill added: “We need to err on the side of caution and give people the reassurance that they are looking for in terms of a government approach.

“We need to see one approach across the island, one message that is consistent so things are not even more confused.”

Mrs Foster has accepted that schools will close.

She said the region is 14 weeks away from the peak in the infection’s spread as she warned many people may already have it but do not realise.

The DUP leader told BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme: “The timing of all of these things is where the science comes in and the modelling which has been done and which continues to be done by those scientists will inform the decision that we have to take, both at UK level and indeed at Northern Ireland level as well.”

Public health authorities in Northern Ireland fear if they act too soon, they will lose the benefits social isolation will bring in, slowing the spread of the virus.

Sinn Fein finance minister Conor Murphy said: “This situation is developing by the hour.

“What you have heard today is a difference in terms of the timing of what we feel some of the responses should be brought forward.

“The Executive is very clear that we should and will be doing all in our power to do the best we can to offset the damage that this health issue will bring to everyone.”

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