Stormont Health Minister warns of crisis in new year if there is ‘festive free-for-all’

‘Intensive preparations’ under way for a mass vaccination programme across North

Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann: Some 600 people, including retired health professionals, have so far volunteered as vaccinators, alongside 880 staff in the health service.   Photograph: PA

Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann: Some 600 people, including retired health professionals, have so far volunteered as vaccinators, alongside 880 staff in the health service. Photograph: PA

 

Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann has warned of a crisis in the new year if there is a “festive free-for-all” ignoring restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus over the coming weeks.

As seven more deaths of people with Covid 19 were reported in the North, Mr Swann said new guidelines allowing people from three households to meet indoors for five days over Christmas did not mean it was “time to relax our guard”.

“Christmas is a time of hope and togetherness, but the greatest gift we can give our loved ones this year is to look after them,” he told a press conference in Belfast.

“While some restrictions may be relaxed for a few days in December, maximum vigilance will still be required. Social distancing will still be vital. A festive free-for-all would mean a new year crisis.”

Under temporary guidelines to allow families to meet at Christmas, three households will be allowed to come together in homes from December 23rd- 27th. Ahead of that, a fresh two-week circuit-breaker lockdown is being imposed from Friday.

Mr Swann said people’s actions over the two-week period, ending on December 11th, will have a “huge bearing on the kind of Christmas that we all can have”.

“This is a time to unite, to get the best outcome from the next two weeks,” he said.

Mass vaccination programme

The UUP MLA confirmed “intensive preparations” were already under way for a mass vaccination programme across the North, which he said would be a “massive logistical operation which will span several months”.

Some 600 people, including retired health professionals, have so far volunteered as vaccinators, alongside 880 staff in the health service.

There have been 954 reported deaths of people with coronavirus in the North to date. There were also another 533 confirmed cases of the virus recorded on Wednesday. A total of 50,676 people have now tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland since the pandemic began.

The North’s chief medical officer, Michael McBride, said the number of new cases of Covid-19 had fallen overall over the past week, according to a seven-day rolling average, which stood at 170 per 100,000 of population.

The figure was lower than in England and Wales, but remained higher than the Republic.

There were variations between local government districts in the rate of positive tests, with the figure falling in some but only remaining stable in others. Mid-Ulster remains the worst affected area.

The seven-day rolling average of hospital admissions for patients testing positive for coronavirus was also “thankfully continuing to fall, albeit slowly over the last week”, said Mr McBride. But he warned it was not falling as quickly as had been hoped for, and “remains at relatively high levels” with the health service still “under significant pressure”. Numbers in intensive care also remain high but are falling.

Mental health

Mr McBride said guidelines allowing three households to meet indoors over Christmas carried with it risks that needed to be balanced with the mental health and well being benefits of families coming together. But he was in “no doubt” that it would result in increased incidents of coronavirus in the aftermath of the five-day period. “Let’s work together to keep those figures as low as possible,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said it was called to the Holyland area of south Belfast early on Wednesday, for the second night in a row, over complaints about noisy house parties and antisocial behaviour.

Chief Insp Gavin Kirkpatrick said 14 fines of £200 and six prohibition notices were issued at two houses in the area, which is popular with students.

“Police remained in the area and shortly after 2am, had to contend with a crowd of approximately 50 young people who gathered in groups in the Agincourt Street area,” he said. “One 23 year old male was arrested for assault on police and other offences.

“I am sure many people will have seen the footage on social media showing the appalling behaviour of some people police had to deal with. We have once again increased patrolling in the area with a dedicated operation and will continue to liaise with the universities, colleges and other partners to address this issue.

“Indeed, where appropriate, the universities and colleges will consider their own sanctions against any students involved.”