Chief medical officer confirms coronavirus contact tracing to start in Northern Ireland next week

Beefed-up contact tracing to track the spread of coronavirus will begin in Northern Ireland next week.

It was largely stopped last month based on “sound public health considerations” but will become “crucially important” to overcome local pockets of infection, chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said.

Another 13 patients who tested positive have died, Stormont’s health department announced, bringing total fatalities to 263.

The number of positive cases has risen to 3,016.

Dr McBride said: “We will not test this virus into submission. This virus is not going away.

“We need to use our testing capacity intelligently.”

Intensive care units at present hold 38 Covid-19 patients and 40 non-Covid, and a total of 56 are being ventilated, hospital statistics showed.

Officials will work alongside colleagues in the UK and the Republic of Ireland using similar digital platforms to share information and enhance tracing.

Up to 600 staff involved would include environmental health officers plus nursing and medical students who could be retrained.

Dr McBride said: “I am confident we will have the numbers to carry out contact tracing.”

Health minister Robin Swann (pictured) said testing was being increased as rapidly as possible.

As of Wednesday, 16,378 people had been checked for the virus.

He told Stormont’s Health Committee of Assembly members that Northern Ireland had achieved its aim of completing 1,100 tests a day.

The minister warned the country was “not out of the woods yet” and without a vaccine, needed to plan for a second wave of Covid-19 later this year.

“Modelling has indicated that we are now in the peak of the first wave of the pandemic but it’s too early to confirm whether the current figures represent the peak,” he said.

He warned progress from social distancing could be quickly lost.

“The outbreak has not yet reached the point where some of the restrictions can be relaxed.”

Mr Swann said extra critical care capacity is not expected to be needed during the first wave.

Northern Ireland has 38 spare adult intensive care unit beds.

A total of 197 ventilators are available and further orders will take that to more than 400 if required, the minister said.

The worst-case scenario for deaths from the virus has reduced from 15,000 to 1,500, modelling suggests.

First Minister Arlene Foster has said the country may emerge from lockdown quicker than other parts of the UK.

Sinn Fein’s national chairman and Stormont junior minister Declan Kearney suggested “right-wing elements” in the British Cabinet are prepared to put “corporate greed over public welfare”, reopening the economy while the virus still poses a risk to life.

DUP economy minister Diane Dodds said his comments were “regrettable”.

She added: “This is not the time for identity or ideological politics. We all quite rightly want to preserve lives.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has also rejected the assertion.

Sinn Fein finance minister Conor Murphy said ministers would find an agreement to gradually emerge from the restrictions.

He said: “We want to see the economy recover.”

Stormont ministers are divided over when to reopen cemeteries.

All sides have expressed sympathy with the grief-stricken who have been affected by social distancing.

Mrs Dodds said: “An essential part of that process is allowing people to visit the graves of loved ones.”

Mr Murphy added: “I have huge sympathy for people who want to get out, particularly people who are distressed in terms of visiting a loved one who has died.”

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