Statement by the First Minister and deputy First Minister to the Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Covid-19 response.
Mr Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to update the Ad Hoc Committee today. I recognise the critical role that the Assembly must play in responding to this crisis and I am grateful to you and the Assembly for the flexibility you have shown in helping accommodate the Executive at this time. It is important that we all work together to respond to the challenges that we face.
All in the House will wish to join today in sending best wishes to the Prime Minister for a speedy recovery.
It is the intention of the Executive, Mr Speaker, to keep the Assembly informed of our response to COVID-19.
The Minister for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs will make a statement later today. The Minister for Education and the Minister for Communities will give statements to this Committee over the next few days, and the other Executive Ministers will also come before this Committee on a regular basis.
Before I provide an update on the Executive’s work I would like to start by thanking all our healthcare workers for their courage, their compassion, their commitment and their diligence in caring for us all during these difficult times.
We are extremely grateful for the work of all our doctors and nurses, and everyone working in the health service, from the laundry to the laboratory.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all the workers in other sectors who are making sure that there is still food on our tables, the lights are still on, there is clean water from our taps, our bins are being collected and our key workers can get to and from their work, among many other essential tasks.
The thoughts and prayers of all of us across this Assembly will be with the families and loved ones of the deceased.
As of 11:15am on Tuesday 7th April, testing has indicated that the total number of confirmed cases is 1,255.
Our modelling indicates that the peak of the first wave of the epidemic is expected between 6-20 April 2020. Our key messages to the public are therefore more important than ever, and remain the same.
Please stay at home as much as possible, observe social distancing in public and, where a member of a household starts to show symptoms of Covid-19 to self-isolate for 14 days.
We know that the majority of people are taking these measures seriously and doing all that they can to protect the NHS and help save lives. We will be asking that all continue to do the right thing this coming week and over the Easter period.
We recognise that Easter is a time when many families would usually get together, but it is essential that everyone continues to follow the social distancing instructions, as they did over Mother’s Day. This will help protect those who are most vulnerable in our society, as well as those who are working so hard to look after our health.
As an Executive we are continuing to do all that we can to work in a joined up manner to respond to this crisis. We have been working from home and meeting virtually to ensure that we respect the rules on social distancing.
We are engaging with counterparts in both London and Dublin to ensure that every avenue is pursued in protecting our people. We are also engaging further afield. The deputy First Minister and I have had discussions with the Chinese Consul General, Madam Zhang Meifang on securing more equipment to support healthcare staff and sharing medical expertise.
As an Executive we have developed collective strategic priorities focused on looking after
- the health and wellbeing of all of our citizens;
- our economic wellbeing (both in the immediate and short term and the medium to long term); and
- the wellbeing of our community and society.
We are keeping our priorities under constant review so that we can react quickly as the situation develops.
In relation to our health and wellbeing, the concerns about PPE are being treated extremely seriously by this Executive.
The first batch of a fresh order from the NHS was delivered to Northern Ireland on Monday 6 April comprising some 5.5 million items in total. This includes 1,320,000 aprons and 307,800 FFP3 respirator masks. The remainder is expected in coming days. The extra 5.5 million items of PPE for Northern Ireland is very welcome news for our frontline staff.
However, we know that we need to replenish and increase the stock that we hold, given the expected level of demand in the coming weeks.
Efforts to source more PPE are continuing, and this is a constant focus of our Executive meetings. The Minister for Health is actively working with the Minister of Finance to pursue all feasible supply routes, both international and local. It is a global challenge.
Updated UK-wide NHS guidance on PPE use was issued last week. This guidance will inform PPE use across our system and help us to prioritise distribution. I trust that this updated guidance together with securing greater quantities of PPE for Northern Ireland will play a part in allaying concerns.
We recognise that other sectors are also facing PPE challenges, and we have been considering their needs in our Executive meetings, and in our procurement efforts.
I can assure the Assembly that there is no lack of urgency in this matter. We are doing everything we can to best of our ability to get the right PPE to those who need it at the right time.
I can also assure the Assembly that we are working equally as urgently on the important matter of testing.
I am pleased to note that testing for healthcare workers has now commenced at the SSE Arena. The Public Health Agency is involved in this testing initiative, with input from HSC Trust colleagues. This complements work undertaken by Trusts to scale up their own testing capabilities.
We will continue to expand the testing of healthcare staff as quickly as possible. We fully understand the frustration that more staff have not yet been tested, both in the healthcare sector and across other sectors.
We understand that people are concerned about potentially unknowingly passing on the virus to their loved ones, or those they are looking after. And we appreciate that people with Covid-like symptoms are frustrated at having to self-isolate while their colleagues are under pressure, when the results of a test may allow them to get back to work.
However, I can assure you that the difficulties in scaling up testing are not due to a lack of effort or will. There are significant challenges including laboratory and staffing capacity and the unprecedented levels of global demand for testing reagents and swabs.
Testing and PPE are two of the challenges that the Executive are working tirelessly to resolve. At the same time, we are facing multiple challenges across all departments.
The Minister for the Economy has been working with the Covid-19 Engagement Forum to consider important social distancing guidance for our businesses. The Minister has also been working closely with the Minister of Finance to pay out grants to small businesses who are eligible for the Small Business Rate Relief Scheme. As of yesterday, 13,187 grants had been paid and 1,603 other applications were being validated. This will provide some much needed cash flow to businesses and I would urge anyone who thinks their business is entitled to the payment but has not received it to use the online portal to register their details.
Working closely with Executive colleagues, the Minister for Infrastructure has made public transport free for all health and social care workers during this outbreak. This is a small gesture that will help make things a little easier for those who are on the front line in caring for us all during this period.
As we continue to support those who have been affected financially by this crisis, the Minister for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs has announced a substantial support package for our fishing industry to help the fleet survive this difficult period.
The Minister has also been considering the impact on the environment as he has established a Covid-19 Waste Group to provide support, guidance and regulatory direction to the waste sector, who are providing us with essential services during this time.
The Minister for Justice has been working closely with colleagues in the Police Service to ensure that they are able to continue to do their jobs.
The deputy First Minister will provide a further update on some of these issues.
deputy First Minister
Go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle,
Thank you for this opportunity to update the House on our response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19 is one of the biggest challenges of our lifetime.
It is causing loss of life and great hardship to many people throughout our society, this island and across the world at this time.
The number of individuals tested for this virus is 9,158.
The number of laboratory confirmed tested is 1,255.
These figures relate predominately to patients admitted to a HSC Trust acute hospital, so will be an underestimate, but as the testing strategy is rolled out it will change to include those with the virus that are also tested in the community, of which we want more of, including for our frontline healthcare workers.
Sadly, and regrettably I can report that, as of 11.15am this morning there have been 73 Covid-19 related deaths.
On behalf of us all in this Assembly I want to extend my sincere condolences to the family, friends and neighbours of those who have lost loved ones.
73 families find themselves in the most heart breaking situation, but to compound this loss and grief further they have had to bury their loved one without the traditional wake and a restricted funeral due to the nature of the virus and its spread.
Those who have passed are not mere numbers, they are grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters - the lives lost who as a society we will remember, and never forget.
To our nurses and doctors and all of our healthcare workers in our hospitals and in the homes – the virtue of loving care for the sick and vulnerable is remarkable, and we are all thankful.
Each of us know someone from our family or community who works in our health service.
I want you to know that we take huge pride in your professionalism, selflessness and courage and salute your fortitude and dignity in combating this deadly virus.
I was really struck by the words of ambulance paramedic, Tina Marie, who said, “That if we take your loved one out of your home, we can assure you we will love them like one of our own.”
That epitomises the care of our health workers.
I have spoken with many frontline healthcare workers.
You have told me you are frightened.
You have told me you are worried about being able to do your job safely.
You have told me that you are worried for your families.
We see you, we hear you, and we are working night and day to make sure you get the protection that you deserve.
We can assure you that good progress is definitely being made in securing more Personal Protective Equipment, and this remains a top priority for the Executive.
We want to assure the public that the Executive is working tirelessly in our response to this pandemic.
Our top priority is to save lives.
Be in no doubt that while the five parties in our government coalition have a diversity of views, there is unity of purpose.
No political difference of emphasis will interfere with the greater good.
This Assembly is a devolved administration, so we do have the ability to adopt a regional approach which responds to our local circumstances.
While we have two jurisdictions, we are one island and this means it’s sensible that we have common action to combat this deadly virus.
The COVID-19 pandemic does not respect borders, so there must be a common approach to action in both jurisdictions on this island.
A formal Memorandum of Understanding has been devised by the Health Ministers, and CMOs to focus our co-operation, which the Executive noted last Friday.
The Executive has announced significant measures and interventions to help stop the spread of COVID-19, which have included school closures; closing of non-essential business and services and the introduction of regulatory powers and an enforcement regime to get people to stay at home.
All social events are now banned.
And public gatherings of two or more people – excluding households or for essential work related purposes – are prohibited.
The Executive secured a budget totalling £912m to resource the Executive response against Covid-19 which has been used to resource our Health service, and provide substantial economic and social support packages to workers, households, the vulnerable, and business to help give people peace of mind, relief and support everyone’s well-being at this very difficult and challenging time.
This week is when the surge in the spread of cases will occur and our plea is for people to live by the law - stay at home to stop the spread, flatten the curve, to protect lives and your family’s well-being.
This weekend is Easter and although not easy, people must stay at home.
People must listen and understand that this virus is spreading, and it is killing people.
You can do something about this.
You must only go out of your home;
• to shop for basic necessities – but only once a day, at the most.
• to take exercise – again, no more than once a day – and this should be done alone, or with your household, not in groups.
• for medical reasons for yourself - or if providing care or to support a vulnerable person; and
• to travel to essential work if that work absolutely cannot be done from home.
There is evidence that a lot of people are listening – road and rail traffic on key routes has fallen significantly.
An estimated figure of 650 rail users on 31st March 2020 amounts to just 30% of the 2,200 who used those services seven days earlier.
This is encouraging but we cannot let this slip – especially as we head into the Easter weekend.
I would also like to make a special appeal to our young people. I know how difficult it must be to not be able to see your friends or take part in your usual activities. However, what you are doing is saving lives.
I would like to record our thanks for all the principals and teachers who are going above and beyond in coming up with creative ways to help our children continue to learn at this time.
Also to those helping in the care of our key workers.
Arrangements have also been put in place to provide payments for 51,000 families covering 93,000 children who would normally receive free school meals. The speedy implementation of this policy demonstrates the commitment of this Executive to looking after those in our community who are vulnerable at this difficult time.
The Minister for Communities and her department have been working hard to put in place measures to support and enable the Voluntary & Community Sector as it seeks to mobilise and coordinate its response to this emergency.
In recent days Minister Hargey announced that a £10m scheme to deliver food parcels to 10,400 homes will begin this week, and that those who have been advised to stay at home due to underlying health conditions will be the beneficiaries.
The Minister has also set up a Freephone community helpline, and she will make a statement in the House this week to update members on these efforts.
As the situation continues to unfold our other Executive colleagues will appear before this Committee to provide detailed updates on their activities.
We are working with leaders across the entire public sector, including local government, emergency services, private sector and community leaders.
This takes a whole of society approach.
We are taking a smart, proactive and deliberate approach to resilience which is about saving lives, livelihoods and peoples well-being.
Like everywhere else, the Executive has a very big challenge ahead of it to reduce the risk to our people, and to save lives, and we cannot do it alone.
We have high expectations of ourselves, and the public we serve, to play our part in the weeks and months ahead to help protect people’s health and well-being and to the benefit of today’s, and future generations.
Protection of the lives and welfare of everyone on the island is paramount, and no effort will be spared in that regard.
We will leave nobody behind.
Go raibh maith agaibh.
Notes to editors:
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