Michelle O’Neill forced to self-isolate as Health Minister warns crisis ‘becoming graver by the hour’
The coronavirus emergency is becoming graver by the hour, Northern Ireland’s health minister warned.
A record high in the daily number of new positive cases was recorded on Friday as ministers ponder tighter restrictions.
The Government will pay two thirds of staff wages in pubs, restaurants and other businesses if they are forced to close, the Chancellor has announced.
Stormont’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (pictured) was forced into precautionary isolation after a family member contracted Covid-19.
Some 1,080 cases were notified by the Department of Health on Friday.
Health minister Robin Swann said: “The situation is grave and getting more so, on a daily if not hourly basis.”
Significant limits on household contacts remain in place across Northern Ireland.
More stringent precautions were introduced in the Derry City and Strabane local government district in the north west where the virus has raged through the community.
Rishi Sunak said the expansion of the Job Support Scheme would protect jobs and provide “reassurance and a safety net” for people and businesses across the UK in advance of a potentially “difficult winter”.
Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster welcomed the funding.
“It’s something that we have been pressing for to help companies who have had to stop trading,” she said.
Business representative organisation Belfast Chamber warned that another shutdown would result in profound and permanent damage to the economy, but publicans said the support could provide a “vital cushion”.
Mr Swann said he had been advised that further restrictions for Northern Ireland are likely to be required in the very near future, in the event of positive cases continuing their current upward trajectory.
“This will be necessary to reduce hospitalisations and loss of life and to protect our health and social care system from being overwhelmed.
“Unfortunately, as has been stated, the seasons are not in our favour, as winter leaves health and social care at its most fragile every year.”
Stormont ministers are taking into account the wider societal and economic consequences of any further regulations.
Mr Swann said: “The Executive is in effect in a double bind – wanting to protect our citizens and hospitals from the virus while seeking to prevent lasting and widespread economic damage, with all the implications that will bring for the wellbeing of individuals and communities.
“It is my view that this is the single biggest challenge facing our Executive and Assembly in the modern era of devolution.”
The estimate of the reproductive rate of the virus is between 1.3 and 1.8 for new positive tests and hospital inpatients.
Over the last week, there has been a further marked 100% increase in cases in the context of a moderate 15% increase in testing, the minister said.
Mr Swann said: “There has been a progressive rise in Covid hospital patients, which are now around 33% of peak levels during wave one.
“This trend is expected to become more pronounced in the very near future in the light of the sustained spike in new cases.”
The 5,272 new cases of the virus reported in the last seven days brings the overall tally to 18,190.
As of Friday, 132 Covid patients were being treated in hospital, with 16 in intensive care units and 10 on ventilators.
The toll remains at 587.
Ms O’Neill, who is being tested, will restrict her movements for two weeks and work remotely from her Co Tyrone home.
The development would only have potential self-isolating consequences for Ms O’Neill’s Stormont colleagues if the Sinn Fein vice president tested positive.
On Thursday, ministers moved to increase fines for non-compliance with Covid-19 regulations.
The Executive also extended the number of places where the wearing of face coverings will be compulsory.
Meanwhile, A-level, AS and GCSE exams will start one week later next year but will still finish by June 30.
Schools have been asked to keep evidence of pupils’ progress in case it is needed as part of contingency arrangements.
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