Minister fears some venues in NI are ‘flouting’ Covid-19 guidelines

‘Stronger legislation’ planned after footage surfaces of guests dancing at wedding

One more person with coronavirus has died in Northern Ireland, bringing the total number of fatalities recorded by the North's Department of Health (DoH) to 560.

The death was reported by the DoH on Thursday, but took place on August 25th.

A total of 69 new cases of Covid-19 have been identified in the North in the last 24 hours, bringing the number of confirmed cases since the pandemic began to 6,964.

The number of cases in the North has been increasing in recent weeks, and the seven-day rolling average for new cases now stands at 418. Belfast reported the greatest number of new cases in the last week, with 101, and there were 87 cases in Mid and East Antrim.

According to the DoH there are now outbreaks in 14 care homes in the North. Fifteen people with Covid-19 are being treated in hospital, and one is in intensive care.

According to the department the reproduction, or “R” rate of the virus in Northern Ireland is now estimated at about 1.3.

The North's health minister, Robin Swann, said on Thursday he was concerned some licenced premises were "flouting" the coronavirus guidelines and he intends to ask the North's Executive to "prioritise stronger legislation" to address it.

He was speaking after footage obtained by the BBC’s Stephen Nolan Show showed guests dancing at a wedding, contrary the guidelines, and there has been “anecdotal” evidence in the industry of other breaches.

Mr Swann told reporters at a press conference on Thursday that while the “majority” of licenced premises and other businesses were complying with the regulations, he had heard “worrying reports from some concerned members of the public and from the industry itself and from our ongoing liaison with police.”

“This needs collective action from the Executive,” he said. “If you flout the rules you must face the consequences.”

Industry body Hospitality Ulster has recommended to the minister that guidance limiting late-night opening, music and dancing should be replaced with legislation. This would give businesses statutory protection when enforcing the rules and allow venues to remain open safely.

“It’s a fine balance”, said the chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, Colin Neill. “Obviously public health comes first but we are trying to get regulations where lives aren’t put at risk but it’s still desirable enough for people to go out for their dinner.”

Amid fears over reduced compliance with regulations, a new study from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) shows people are becoming less worried about the effect of coronavirus on their lives.

The second set of results from NISRA’s Covid-19 opinion survey was published on Thursday. The findings are based on 1,785 interviews with members of the public carried out between April 21st and July 23rd 2020.

Approximately eight out of ten people (77 per cent) who were interviewed in April and May said they were worried about the effect Covid-19 was having on their lives, compared to 67 per cent in June and July.

Both the North’s chief medical officer and Mr Swann have recently warned against “complacency” and urged the public to continue to follow public health advice and the coronavirus regulations.

Waiting lists

Meanwhile separate figures released earlier on Thursday showed the impact of the coronavirus crisis on healthcare waiting lists.

More than 300,000 people in the North were waiting for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment as of June 30th, an increase of just over 4,000 people compared to the end of March and almost 12,000 more compared to this time last year.

Waiting times also increased, with almost nine out of ten patients - 89.3 per cent or 277,704 people - waiting more than nine weeks for that first appointment, compared to 79.1 per cent (242,864 people) at the end of March and 74 per cent or 224,130 people at the end of June 2019.

The number of patients attending first outpatient appointments dropped by 60.6 per cent, with 41,500 people being seen in the quarter ending on June 30th compared to 105,292 in the quarter ending March 31st.

Almost 100,000 people are waiting for admission to hospital for treatment, with the number of patients waiting more than 13 weeks for admission to hospital for treatment rose to 88.8 per cent or 86,337 people, compared to 71.4 per cent (66,872 people) as of March 31st and 66.7 per cent (58,872) on June 30th 2019.

The number of patients receiving inpatient and day case treatment also fell, with around 25,000 people treated in April, May and June compared to about 40,000 the previous quarter.

As of the end of June almost three-quarters of patients - 110,225 people - had been waiting longer than nine weeks for a diagnostic test, compared to just over half - 72,248 of patients as of the end of March.

Mr Swann said tackling coronavirus necessitated a “virtual lockdown” of normal health and social care services which has had “an inevitable and serious impact on waiting lists that were already far beyond being unacceptable.”

While a lot of hard work was underway to rebuild services, he said, this would take time and would be “entirely dependant on the path Covid will take.”

Running coronavirus and non-coronavirus services was a “massive challenge”, he said, and it was “inevitable” there would be further hospital-based outbreaks and clusters in the months ahead.

“Infection control measures are going to be with for us for some time and inevitably, despite our rebuilding efforts, this will have an adverse impact on waiting times for procedures,” he said.

“We are facing a very difficult winter for an already very fragile health service,” he said, adding that everyone had a role to play “in protecting our health service and supporting our staff - by following the public health advice on social distancing, hand washing and wearing face coverings.”