‘Preparations under way’ to ramp up coronavirus testing in Northern Ireland

Preparations are under way to ramp up coronavirus testing in Northern Ireland, the Stormont health minister said said.

Robin Swann blamed the availability of products and the supply chain on the current pace of testing.

He said facilities are being prepared in a car park at the SSE Arena and at MOT centres so they are ready for whenever testing can be ramped up.

Mr Swann made the remarks as he briefed Stormont’s health committee on Thursday.

Coronavirus
A drive-thru coronavirus testing facility being built in the car park of the SSE Arena in Belfast. (Niall Carson/PA)

He said authorities have been trying to get testing improved “as hard and as fast as we can”.

“We haven’t pushed it as hard or as fast as I would like it to have been, but every day we see changes and developments in our testing capability,” he said.

“That’s why we are looking at MOT test centres and we’re looking at that development down in the Odyssey so when that ability comes and we are able to ramp up we can complete that.”

Mr Swann said the first line of testing is for those admitted to hospital with symptoms, a second line is for people in care homes, and a third is for healthcare workers.

He said 387 tests were carried out on healthcare workers on Monday.

Robin Swann
Robin Swann (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Swann was also quizzed on the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Acting committee chairman Pat Sheehan (Sinn Fein) asked how many of the 400 million items of PPE referred to as being distributed in the UK in the last two weeks had been delivered to Northern Ireland.

Mr Swann responded: “We haven’t received any of that as of yet but we are in the supply chain so that is on the way to us.

“We still have our own stocks and supplies, and what I wouldn’t want to do here is get into any sort of political discussion about who has supplied or who hasn’t supplied. The order is in… it’s on its way, it’s not that it is being denied to us, or it’s not that we haven’t got it, it is in the distribution chain.”

He said there are still issues with getting PPE to the right people at the right time.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

Earlier in the meeting Mr Swann told the committee a memorandum of understanding between the chief medical officers in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland “will be signed shortly”.

He described it as a “high-level document that reinforces the commitments we already are doing”.

“It is putting on a more formal basis the things that we have been doing. We have a very good, strong working relationship with the health service in the Irish Republic through our chief medical officers, my engagement with the minister down there, so we have good working relationships North-South and East-West as well,” he said.

Mr Swann also referred to expert modelling released on Wednesday which suggested 3,000 people in Northern Ireland will die in the first wave of Covid-19 to hit the region.

He said the drop from initial projections of 14,000 if no measures such as social distancing had been put in place shows how “responsible acts” can have an impact on the number of deaths and on how many will become seriously ill.

The minister outlined the “next step in our surge plan” with Northern Ireland’s “equivalent of the Nightingale hospitals” being set up at Belfast City Hospital’s tower block.

Some 230 beds will be available there for intensive care.

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