Coronavirus: Chief Medical Officer defends localised restrictions in areas like Ballymena as new details emerge regarding what we can expect

Ballymena's Broughshane Street on Friday afternoon. Picture: Ballymena Daily.

NORTHERN Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride has defended new localised restrictions across in areas like Ballymena which come into force next week.

His message came as the government’s nidirect website issued updated details regarding travel in and out of the areas like Ballymena.

On Thursday night a Stormont press release said: ‘Anyone living in these areas is asked to avoid unnecessary travel outside the restricted areas’.

However, on Friday the nidirect website said: ‘Anyone living in these areas is asked to be very mindful of the risks of spreading the virus by travel. That includes, wherever possible, avoid travelling outside your area for indoor household visits.

‘If you feel you need to travel outside your area for any other reason, satisfy yourself that it can be done in a safe and socially distanced fashion. Don’t put yourself or others at risk,’ the website said.

People should “use their good judgement” when considering the restrictions, Dr Michael McBride told the BBC.

People living in the Belfast council area, Ballymena town and postcode areas BT43 – which takes in country areas from Ballymena to Cargan, BT28 and BT29 are currently facing more restrictions than other areas of Northern Ireland.

No more than six people from two households will be allowed to meet in a private garden in the restricted zones.

The measures are due to take effect from next week but First Minister Arlene Foster has already urged people in the areas to “act immediately”.

Speaking to BBC Newsline, Dr Michael McBride said there was “no neat or easy solution” but that he hoped people would comply with the guidelines.

“The aim is to reduce community transmission between households,” he said.

“We know if we don’t achieve that and stop the spread of the virus we’re going to see more people in intensive care.”

Dr McBride insisted that the affected areas were “not going into lockdown” but the move was an attempt to pre-empt further increases of the virus to avoid consequences similar to the first coronavirus wave.

He added that he hoped the measures would be in place for “no longer” than a fortnight but that there was always a “lag time” between introducing measures and assessing their effectiveness.

There are also localised restrictions in the Crumlin area where Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council has put in place a number of measures to support both residents and businesses.

To support and reassure leisure users, a temperature camera is being installed in Crumlin Leisure Centre as well as additional hand sanitising units. Staff will also be located at key points in the building to ensure that social distancing is complied with.

The Council’s Environmental Health Team has also been on the ground, visiting businesses in the Crumlin area to provide advice and guidance in relation to social distancing and safe operating procedures, with 30 visits completed to date, they said on Friday evening.

Additional cleans are also scheduled to take place across the town of Crumlin to support the health and safety message.

Mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey, Councillor Jim Montgomery, said “The health and safety of our residents is paramount at this time and the extra measures we are implementing across the Crumlin area will hopefully mitigate any risk of the virus spreading further.

“I would urge all residents in the areas affected to follow the guidance from the NI Executive which includes households not mixing with other households. It is important that everyone remains vigilant at this time as we all play a part in the ongoing fight against COVID19.”

The nidirect government website, on Friday evening, contained the following information:

Coronavirus (COVID-19): regulations and localised restrictions

‘Following an increase in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, additional restrictions are being introduced for people living in certain areas. These are aimed at limiting the chances for the virus to spread between households. This page contains information on what you can and cannot do if you live in an affected area.

‘If you live in an area that is not affected by additional local restrictions you should continue to follow the general staying safe guidance

‘Areas with local restrictions
Additional restrictions are being introduced for people living in the following areas:

Belfast City Council area
postcode area BT28
postcode area BT29
the town of Ballymena
postcode area BT43

‘The restrictions will be introduced in the week beginning 14 September 2020 and will be subject to weekly monitoring and review.

‘What are the restrictions?

‘The principal decisions – which will be reflected in the regulations put in place next week – relate to household gatherings in these areas:

‘No mixing of households in private dwellings, with exemptions for:
bubbling with one other household
caring responsibilities including childcare
essential maintenance
supported living arrangements
visits required for legal or medical purposes
marriage or civil partnership ceremony in a private dwelling where one partner is terminally ill
No more than six people to gather in a private garden from no more than two households

‘Is there also guidance about travel, visits to hospitals and care homes?

‘That’s correct. Everything apart from household mixing is covered by guidance not regulation.

‘Anyone living in these areas is asked to be very mindful of the risks of spreading the virus by travel. That includes, wherever possible, avoid travelling outside your area for indoor household visits.

‘If you feel you need to travel outside your area for any other reason, satisfy yourself that it can be done in a safe and socially distanced fashion. Don’t put yourself or others at risk.

‘In addition, care homes and hospitals in these areas will be advised to significantly curtail visits as soon as practicable. One member of a family will be permitted a visit once a week while these localised restrictions apply. More frequent visits may be permitted in exceptional circumstances, including palliative care facilities and those receiving end of life care.

‘What should older and medically vulnerable people do?

‘Medically vulnerable and older people living in these areas are asked to be particularly careful in following the advice on limiting household contacts, social distancing, hand washing and wearing a face covering, given the local levels of Covid-19.

‘We are not reintroducing guidance to shield at this time – shielding remains paused.

‘Why is the Executive doing this?

‘This is about stopping the spread of Covid-19 and saving lives. Positive cases are rising in Northern Ireland, particularly in these areas.

‘The virus spreads when people are in contact. This an attempt to reduce contacts.

‘While Covid-related hospital admissions are low at present, it is believed these will rise as the growing infection rates increasingly spread into older and more vulnerable sections of our community.

‘Sadly, we have already seen the catastrophic consequences when the virus gets into care homes and hospital wards.

‘I live in one of these affected areas, am I effectively in lockdown?

‘No, this is not a lockdown. Let’s be very clear about that. The new restrictions are focused on reducing contacts between people in household settings. That’s what the regulations will deal with.

‘Anything else is for guidance only.

‘When it comes to issues like travel, socialising outside of the home, work, shopping, attending weddings or other functions, people should use their discretion and common sense. Continue to work from home if you can. Ask yourself how important a journey or other planned activity is to you. How much additional risk would it bring to you or others? How difficult would it be to maintain social distancing?

‘Remember that positive tests are particularly high in your area and bear that in mind in relation to everything you do. Be really careful and keep yourself and others safe. Maintain social distancing, wash your hands and wear a face covering when required.

‘We all have to try to strike the right balance in our daily lives as we continue to manage and mitigate the Covid-19 risks.

‘So can people leave a restricted area – or travel into one – for work, to go shopping, eat in a restaurant etc?

‘Yes. This will still be permitted under the new regulations. If you have to travel for work purposes into or out of these areas, then do so. Likewise, businesses in these areas are still open for business. This not a lockdown. We’re just asking people to be ultra-careful and always be mindful of the Covid rates in particular areas. Ask yourself how important a planned activity is to you.

‘So I can meet people in a pub or restaurant but not in my own home?

‘The restrictions are about reducing interactions between people. Reducing household contacts is viewed by the Executive as the most effective way to achieve that at this time.

‘Hospitality businesses will continue to be subject to strict guidance, regulation and appropriate enforcement where necessary.

‘By focussing new restrictions on households rather than businesses, is this not putting the economy ahead of health?

‘In common with other administrations, the Executive is seeking to protect both public health and the local economy. This is a difficult challenge and there are no easy options.

‘It should always be remembered that unemployment, poverty and economic deprivation have serious consequences for people’s physical and mental health.

‘Will these restrictions not be bad for business in the areas affected?

‘Covid-19 is bad for business. Rapidly rising rates of infection are very bad for business and for employees. The Executive is bringing in restrictions now to try to slow and stop a worrying increase in cases.

‘If we can get back on top of the situation, we can avoid more drastic actions down the line. Doing nothing would be really bad for business.

‘Are schools going to close in the areas covered by restrictions?

‘No. Keeping schools open is a major priority for the Executive. Introducing restrictions in other areas of life can help protect schools and keep them open.

‘I’m not sure I live in the areas covered by the restrictions. What should I do?

‘It is recognised that there will be people living on the fringes of the areas with restrictions. That is unavoidable. Additional work to provide clarity on the boundaries will be taken forward in line with development of the regulations.

‘Until then, if you’re not sure if your area is covered by the regulations or guidance, take a precautionary approach, and avoid contacts with other households whenever possible.

‘I don’t live in an affected area, so I can just ignore all this?

‘No – the restrictions will be kept under constant review and areas can be added or removed from the list, depending on their Covid rates.

‘Everyone has to keep playing their part and strictly follow public health advice, whether you live in these areas or not. Covid-19 rates of infection can increase rapidly and with catastrophic consequences.

‘You must continue to follow the general advice that applies to the whole of Northern Ireland.

‘Why did the Executive not just apply the restrictions to the whole of Northern Ireland?

‘The Executive had that option. However, there is a marked variation in the incidence of cases in different localities across Northern Ireland. A targeted approach is more proportionate and keeps disruption to a minimum.

‘It is also hoped that a geographically targeted approach will help create a clear incentive for widespread compliance with public health advice.

‘Why is the whole of the Belfast City Council area covered?

‘The restrictions are being applied for postcodes which currently have levels of Covid cases at or above those where local restrictions have been imposed elsewhere in the UK and Ireland.

‘A number of Belfast Council postcodes fall into this category. The Executive has decided to apply restrictions across the entire Belfast City council boundaries, reflecting the level of population movement across the city, including by public transport.

‘Places of worship, marriages, civil partnerships and funerals

‘No changes have been made to the operation of places of worship.

‘Marriages and civil partnerships can continue to take place, in line with the current restrictions.

‘This is all a lot to take in, will more clarity be provided on what people should do?

‘Yes. The Executive will produce more detailed information when the regulations are introduced next week.

‘Further restrictions

‘Postcode areas may be added and removed from the local restrictions as the patterns of infection change, and further interventions and restrictions could be added as necessary.’

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