Coronavirus: Swann 'uncomfortable' with vaccine certificates for hospitality

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image captionNHS vaccination cards remind people to have their second jab - but do not act as a passport

Health Minister Robin Swann has appeared to rule out the idea of Covid-19 vaccine certification for people to get special access to pubs or restaurants in Northern Ireland.

Mr Swann said it was "not something that sits comfortably" with him.

He said talks were taking place at a UK-wide level about possible certification for international travel.

But that was something that would need to be considered across the UK and Ireland, he added.

On Thursday, a further three Covid-19 deaths were announced in Northern Ireland.

A further 163 new cases of the virus were also confirmed by the Department of Health.

The number of Covid hospital inpatients fell by 50 to 257, with 29 patients with the virus in intensive care.

In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Department of Health has been notified of 39 further coronavirus-related deaths and 462 new cases.

In a statement, the country's National Public Health Emergency Team said that 10 of the deaths occurred in March, 12 in February, 13 in January and three earlier than this.

There have been a total of 4,396 Covid-related deaths in the Republic, while the number of confirmed cases now stands at 221,649.

'Further positive news'

Northern Ireland's transmission rate of coronavirus within the community has fallen again and is now sitting between 0.65 and 0.75.

First Minister Arlene Foster said it was "further positive news" indicating how statistics were moving in the right direction.

Speaking at a news conference, Mrs Foster said the number of people in NI receiving their first Covid vaccine would soon pass 600,000 and that was a "significant milestone".

As of Thursday, 596,860 vaccines have been given in Northern Ireland, of which 556,721 were first doses and 40,139 were second doses.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said maintaining R below one was one of the indicators the executive would use in deciding whether some lockdown measures could be lifted.

"We will provide dates for future easements as soon as we're in a position to do so with confidence," said Ms O'Neill.

Earlier, Mr Swann told Stormont's health committee he had taken part in a call with ministers across the UK on Wednesday evening about the issue of international travel.

"It will bring particular challenges if we introduce it, as it would need to be about access to services," he said.

"If certain countries require a vaccination certificate or passport prior to entry for holidays - then that's something we'll have to develop to allow that greater part of travel.

"It's not something from a political or personal point of view I think we should ever develop in Northern Ireland that we would need to provide certification to enter a cinema or restaurant.

"In regards to proof of international travel we already have those in certain regions for yellow fever, it may become an international requirement, but to access services I don't think it's something the executive or assembly would be entirely comfortable with."

Health system 'damaged' by pandemic

The health minister also said he wanted to see "action" to repair some of the damage Covid-19 has caused to the health service.

"As the pressures from this wave begin to reduce I am turning my mind yet again to the rebuilding of our services," Mr Swann said.

"I made it clear to officials that I expect to see action to repair some of the damage and the delays that this virus has inflicted.

"Needless to say the waiting list position in Northern Ireland is not good and we know that."

The de-escalation of ICU and the re-building of services must be done on a "regional" basis, the minister added, and the Nightingale facility at Belfast City Hospital should be "prioritised for de-escalation".

"That's because Belfast City Hospital normally hosts our complex, high priority surgery for the region," Mr Swann said.

image captionRobin Swann said he had spoken to other UK ministers about international travel passes

"So I am keen that we scale up this high priority surgery as quickly as possible.

This can be done by initially creating "green pathways" as they have become known elsewhere, on the site, eventually turning Belfast City Hospital into a green site which will serve the region.

"That will be facilitated by delivering critical care for Covid-19 patients at the Mater Hospital once again."

Elective care should reflect a "regional prioritisation" and health trusts should develop "green pathways" and "begin to schedule theatre lists two, to three weeks in advance," Mr Swann said.

The de-escalation plans for the period April to June will be published in "due course".

New variants

Mr Swann also said "good progress" was being made with the vaccination programme, which would have a substantial impact on infections and hospitalisations in the medium to longer term.

It's expected that everyone aged over 50 will have received a jab by April, he said.

He noted that South Africa variant had been detected in Northern Ireland but that no cases of the Brazil variant had been found.

"The full impact of new variants will only be seen when restrictions are relaxed," he said.

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Meanwhile, Covid-19 testing of special school staff, pupils and their parents has begun in five schools, the chief medical officer (CMO) has said.

Plans are also in place to roll out the rapid testing programme to the 39 remaining schools across Northern Ireland.

"It's obviously a complex process for both parents, children and indeed staff," Dr Michael McBride said.

"That will be facilitated through saliva based tests which are less invasive for the children."

The Public Health Agency has been working with Queen's University Belfast for the programme, the CMO said.

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