THE decline in the number of fatal Covid-19 cases in Northern Ireland provides no grounds for complacency in the battle to suppress coronavirus, Health Minister Robin Swann insisted today.
As Northern Ireland recorded zero deaths from Covid-19 over the past 24 hours, Minister Swann stressed members of the public still needed to closely follow the public health guidelines.
The Minister told the daily press conference at Stormont: “A second wave of the virus is widely expected in the months ahead, so we must keep fighting back. We must keep our defences up at all times because actions have consequences. Don’t let someone you love or someone you don’t know suffer the consequences of your actions.”
Minister Swann observed the battle against Covid-19 had moved onto a new, more complex phase which wasn’t simply about urging people to stay at home.
While staying at home was a still big part of the public health response, he noted the relaxation of some restrictions posed a challenge to citizens to act responsibly.
The Minister said: “We must not forget the basics – the fundamental ways of keeping ourselves and others safe. Keep your distance. Stay two metres apart. Wash your hands. If people get it into their heads that this emergency is over, the consequences will be catastrophic.
“The progress made over recent months will be swiftly undone and we will have to move back to a tighter lockdown. So think before you act. You have more discretion now, so use it sensibly and safely.”
Minister Swann announced that a fourth testing site for Covid-19 will open later this week in Enniskillen and he also welcomed the announcement that the anti-viral drug Remdesivir will be made available for the treatment of the disease.
With international studies showing the drug can shorten recovery time from Covid-19 by about four days, the drug will be available to patients who meet certain clinical criteria to support their recovery in hospital. Health Trusts will be able to apply for access to the treatment for eligible patients.
Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots announced a £360,000 emergency support package for Northern Ireland’s aquaculture sector.
The package aims to help businesses that have experienced a significant drop in sales during the pandemic.
Announcing the emergency support during a visit to Movanagher Fish Farm near Kilrea, Minister Poots said: “The aim of the emergency package is to help this sector to continue its work in growing, harvesting, shipping and delivering to customers all over the world and help the sector to be sustainable and profitable in the long term. This funding will help those businesses most at risk of financial ruin to survive this difficult period. My Department will inform business owners about the full details of the scheme and how to apply in due course.”
The aquaculture sector is a small but valuable niche market in Northern Ireland, employing around 131 people and supporting rural communities. The scheme aims to assist producers of species like oysters and trout.
The support fund of up to £360,000 will be in the form of a grant payment, covering the three month period 1 March to 31 May 2020 and will be based on the income lost from sales of aquaculture products due to Covid-19. Average monthly sales over the past three years for each business will be used as the baseline.
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon announced plans to extend driving licences for an additional seven months from their expiry date.
With a new EU Regulation due to become law within days, she confirmed all driving licences with an expiry date between 1 February and 31 August 2020 will be treated as valid for a further seven months – removing the requirement to have a medical assessment conducted at this difficult time.
The extension will be automatically applied and new licences will not be issued during this period.
Minister Mallon explained: “I understand that for many people at this time in particular, having a valid licence allowing them to drive for essential journeys or to ensure they can continue to work, is vital.
“This new EU Regulation provides a practical solution to a very real problem and ensures that those in this situation can remain on the road without having to worry about getting a renewal application processed, which for some requires a medical assessment.
“It will also help any customers who could not access or were finding it difficult to renew their licence online. Road safety is my key priority and I would therefore remind all drivers that they have a responsibility to notify the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) if they have a new or worsening medical condition or disability that may affect their ability to drive.”
While the extension could not be applied to taxi licences, the Minister confirmed those in the profession without a medical condition would have their five year licence renewed without a medical report – although they may be asked to submit a medical report at some future date.
She also vowed to do everything she could to ensure those taxi drivers with a medical condition would be prioritised for medical appointments and licence renewal and asked drivers in this situation to contact the DVA directly so it could be addressed as quickly as possible.
Eight pupils from post-primary schools across Northern Ireland took part in a virtual press conference this morning with the Education Minister Peter Weir.
Pupils from Magherafelt High School, Fivemiletown College, Arvalee Special School in Omagh, Banbridge Academy, St Malachy’s College, Belfast, Holy Cross College, Strabane, Our Lady & St Patrick’s College, Belfast and Strangford Integrated College for the chance to put questions directly to the Minister on Covid-19 and its implications for the education sector.
The questions covered a range of issues including examinations, mental health, transport and plans for schools reopening.
Minister Weir commented afterwards: “I was highly impressed this morning by both the range and depth of questioning. In fact we may have some future political journalists in the making. This is the first virtual press conference with students and, given its success today, I intend to hold further press conferences using this format whilst social distancing prevents face-to-face meetings.
“I want to thank the principals who helped make this press conference happen and for their continuing work in coordinating remote learning and preparing for the reopening of schools after the summer term.”