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Coronavirus: Arlene Foster says NI contact tracing must be scaled up

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Northern Ireland's contact tracing system must be "scaled up" in order to help tackle the latest wave of Covid-19, Arlene Foster has said.

The first minister said society "must be able to co-exist" with the virus until a vaccine is found.

She said key to those plans were the test and trace scheme, and increasing capacity of the health service.

Mrs Foster said NI could not continue with strategies of limited lockdowns.

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image captionArlene Foster says on average 1,000 new cases of coronavirus in Northern Ireland are being recorded every day

"That strategy is in reality a failure and will ensure despair engulfs all of our people and we cannot allow that to happen," she said.

"Every sector must adapt and we must learn to live with the virus."

Speaking at a Stormont press briefing on Thursday, the first minister said on average 1,000 new cases of coronavirus in Northern Ireland are being recorded every day.

'We've bought time'

"There are signs we can take a degree of hope from, that our shared effort is turning the tide. There is a slowing in the rate of infection albeit still at a high level," added Mrs Foster.

"Advisers are optimistic we might reach the point soon where cases begin to fall."

Sinn Féin's junior minister Declan Kearney, who was standing in for Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill as she is still self-isolating, urged people to follow the regulations and public health advice.

"We are determined to use this space to double down and develop a strategy to normalise life and maximise public safety," he said.

"We've bought time - now we need to double down on a number of key priorities.

"We have to look after businesses and those most vulnerable in society, double down and ensure we have the necessary resilience in our test, track, trace and isolate programme."

Earlier, it emerged that the Finance Minister Conor Murphy is to self-isolate after a family member tested positive for Covid-19.

Mr Murphy's announcement means a third of ministers in Stormont's 12-strong executive are self-isolating.

Health Minister Robin Swann confirmed on Wednesday night that he is isolating after receiving a close-proximity notification from Northern Ireland's track and trace app.

On Wednesday, Mr Swann's UUP colleague John Stewart MLA announced he had tested positive for coronavirus.

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Several other Stormont assembly members (MLAs) posted on social media that they had also received app notifications to isolate.

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Assembly said: "We have been notified that an MLA has tested positive for Covid-19.

"We are currently tracing all of the MLA's interactions with other building users in order to determine if any additional measures are needed at this time."

On Thursday, another five deaths linked to the virus were reported by Northern Ireland's Department of Health, bringing its death toll to 634.

The department also reported a further 1,042 new cases of the coronavirus.

The total number of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 since the pandemic began now stands at 31,034.

Of the five deaths confirmed on Thursday, four happened during the current reporting period while the fifth took place outside that time frame.

The latest figures show there are 291 inpatients with the virus in hospital, 33 of whom are in intensive care units while 23 patients are being ventilated.

The number of coronavirus outbreaks in care homes remains static at 83.

A geographic breakdown of the department's statistics showed that the five latest deaths were each recorded in different council areas.

The Belfast City Council area had the highest number of new cases over the past week, with 1,748 people testing positive across a seven-day period.

This was followed by Derry City and Strabane Council where 930 new cases have been confirmed in the same week.

In the Republic of Ireland, 1,066 new cases of Covid-19 were announced on Thursday, with three more deaths linked to the virus.

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