Covid-19: 'Unrealistic' to expect NI lockdown to end on 5 March

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It would be unrealistic to expect all lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland to be lifted on 5 March, Health Minister Robin Swann has said.

On Thursday, the executive announced that the current restrictions, which have been in place since 26 December, would be extended to 5 March.

But ministers were also told restrictions may have to remain in place until after the Easter holidays.

Mr Swann said the decision to extend restrictions had not been easy.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster programme, he said: "Can I say that'll we'll have to extend them at that point [5 March]? At this time, no I can't.

"But it would, I think, be unrealistic to think that we'd be able to lift every restriction come that date because we do see where this virus is going, the trajectory it's taking, the large number of positive cases that we are managing but also the large number of hospital admissions that we currently have.

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image captionRobin Swann says the decision to extend the restrictions had not been easy

"There has to be a consideration and planning put into place - we know Covid's going to be with us for a very long time, we also know it will take time for our vaccination process to kick in and have that major effect."

A lockdown closing non-essential retailers and encouraging employees to work from home began after Christmas.

Family gatherings are prohibited and people have been ordered to stay at home for all but essential reasons.

Schools are closed to most pupils until after February's half-term break but a paper looking at reopening will be put to ministers at next week's executive meeting.

The Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church have all confirmed that in-person worship will continue to be suspended until 5 March in accordance with the executive's decision on the restrictions.

The churches say there are exceptions for weddings and funerals and private prayer.

Twelve more Covid-19 related deaths were recorded in Northern Ireland on Friday, taking the overall death toll recorded by the Department of Health to 1,704.

It is a story that changes not only by the day but by the hour and is dictated by numbers.

Never before have we scrutinised hospital figures so closely, especially this week.

And the numbers are important as we know how many intensive care unit (ICU) beds are available across Northern Ireland and potentially how many will be required in the next 24 hours.

On Wednesday, 33 ICU beds were available - on Friday that dropped to 18.

But as we enter a difficult 72 hours, there is a feeling that the health system will cope.

A regional approach to the crisis means no hospital is left to shoulder responsibility on its own.

Every afternoon a call is made about whether an additional "pod" - a bay of beds - is required to be opened at the Nightingale facility at Belfast City Hospital.

If not, it is felt that hospitals can hold their own for another 24 hours.

Coping is good but comes at a terrible cost - keeping a lid on Covid-19 is only possible because so much else within hospitals has been cancelled.

A heavy price has been paid and will continue to be paid for months, possibly years to come.

On Wednesday it was announced more than 100 medically-trained military personnel would be deployed in Northern Ireland to help hospital staff deal with Covid-19 pressures after a request by Mr Swann.

Speaking at Stormont's Health Committee on Thursday, Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan said: "My only concern is that they [military personnel] don't get in the way of the real professionals who are doing the work to save lives.

"This is slamming the dead cat down on the table to deflect attention away from the inadequacies in the health department at the minute."

On Friday, Mr Swann responded by saying he was "disappointed and disgusted" by Mr Sheehan's comments.

He added: "The majority of our health service workers are actually welcoming them because this is a tough period of time that we are entering into in the health service.

"To hear some of the comments where he's actually, I think, criticising the level of delivery that our health service has given over these past 10-12 months, I think is disappointing."

"It wouldn't be the language that would be reflective of his party leadership in regards to the assistance that we're receiving from the Army."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, the Sinn Féin vice-president, had previously said her party's priority had "always been to save lives" and she would "never rule out anything that actually supports the health service".

First Minister Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, said on critics of the move to deploy military medics were putting "political intolerance before patients".

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Mr Swann also said the executive would "not be found wanting" in enforcing Covid-19 regulations.

It came after a district judge said on Wednesday that "the powers-that-be made a significant error" in making breaches of some rules punishable only with fines.

District Judge Michael Ranaghan told Dungannon Magistrates' Court he would have remanded two defendants from Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, in custody if he had "the power to do so".

Shania Devenney, 21, of Kilmacormick Drive, and Nathan Maguire, 20, of Carnmore Lodge, were charged with contravening the regulations when arrested by police who were alerted to anti-social behaviour.

A police officer told the court there had been repeated parties at Ms Devenney's address this month.

The judge, granting bail, said: "I cannot consider remanding in custody as these matters are fine-only.

"The powers-that-be made a significant error when drafting legislation in making these fine-only offences.

"Had I the power to do so I would definitely be remanding these two in custody."

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image captionThe PSNI has issued more than 2,000 Covid-19 fines during the pandemic

The health minister said the executive had asked people "to work with us" and had increased the level of fines.

Asked about the judge's comments about enforcement, Mr Swann said he was "content enough to raise it with executive colleagues and ask the justice minister to have a look at that".

Mr Swann added that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland were abiding by the regulations as it is the "right thing to do".

On Tuesday, police revealed that 2,159 penalty notices had been issued during the pandemic, with fines starting at £200.

There have been 55 failure-to-isolate fines, which incur a £1,000 fine.

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