No further Covid-19 restrictions for Northern Ireland – First Minister

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Northern Ireland’s First Minister has confirmed that no further restrictions have been agreed amid the latest Covid-19 surge.

Paul Givan also said that there are no plans to close schools.

However ministers are examining contingency plans in light of staff shortages across all sectors ahead of the expected peak in the next 10 days.

Speaking separately to reporters in Co Tyrone, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said all contingencies are being planned for.

The Executive met earlier remotely as the region prepares for the expected peak of the Omicron surge in the coming weeks.

The deaths of a further four patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19, and another 6,877 positive cases of the virus were notified on Thursday.

Mr Givan told reporters at Stormont that ministers received an update from health officials during the virtual meeting on Thursday.

“Yes there are pressures within our health service, we are seeing a slight rise in terms of general admissions for people with Covid, but we are seeing a stable situation within our critical care … we are not seeing increases in this wave as we did have in previous waves, and that’s as a result of the vaccination programme,” he told reporters at Stormont.

“Because people have went out, they’ve got their jab, they’re following the public health advice, the Executive hasn’t had to take those kind of measures that were necessary over a year ago and we’re in a much better place now.”

“I know in my engagement with school leaders and parents they very much want children to be in school and that’s why the Education Minister has been doing work in preparation for the new term,” he said.

“We’ve had the delivery of CO2 monitors across our school estate, we’ve had further advice provided from the Permanent Secretary to leaders within our school system, and I want to pay tribute to our principals and teachers who are there and delivering an education because they want to do it in the classroom.

“I recognise that on a school-by-school basis they will face challenges whether that’s through staff absences or through students who become unwell, and that will need to be managed within that school population.

“In terms of a universal approach, schools will not be closed. There isn’t going to be a proposal put forward for that but we recognise that we need to manage pressures that come across our schools at an individual basis.”

The First Minister described a “challenging period” ahead.

“We are seeing increased pressures on our workforce so we are enhancing our civil contingency measures, we’re getting greater engagement across the relevant agencies that are involved, whether that’s the police, local government, central government, those responsible for managing staff absences, and where the critical support would be needed if there are further pressures in that area, then that work is being enhanced across the Executive, and we’ll continue to keep this under review and we will meet again next week,” he added.

Signing of Belfast Region City Deal
Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (Brian Lawless/PA)

“We’re clearly in a very challenging position, we expect that position to get worse over the next week to 10 days, but then we expect the cases to peak and start to fall,” she told reporters in Co Tyrone.

“So, over the next week to 10 days we’re urging the public to double down, to keep being strong in terms of fighting back against the pandemic, make sure you do everything you can to protect yourself and your loved ones, but clearly we are planning for all contingencies.

“There are a lot of people having to isolate right now, so we’re working with our partners in the trade union movement, business leaders, etc, around planning for keeping public services running and ensuring that we can protect people and keep them safe at their workplace.

“There is a lot to continue to work our way through over the course of the coming weeks but we’re clearly in a very challenging position. This Omicron variant is a mass disrupter, it’s impacting on many, many people but, crucially, over the next couple of weeks we need people to double down on their efforts.”

Northern Ireland has been hit with record numbers of cases of the virus due to the Omicron variant.

The case numbers have sparked staff shortages, with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service saying a quarter of its staff are unavailable to work.

Testing capacity has also come under pressure.

Earlier this week, it was announced that, as a temporary measure, positive lateral flow tests will not need to be confirmed with a PCR test.

Covid-19 case rates in UK nations
(PA Graphics)

Meanwhile, the Department of Health has announced that pre-departure Covid tests for travellers arriving in Northern Ireland will be scrapped.

From 4am on Friday, fully vaccinated passengers and under-18s will no longer need to take a pre-departure test or self-isolate on arrival.

Fully vaccinated passengers still need to complete a passenger locator form and take a test on or before day two of their arrival.

From Sunday, this can be either a lateral flow or PCR test.

Anyone with a positive lateral flow test will be required to book a free confirmatory PCR test and isolate. If the PCR is negative, the isolation period can end.

The announcement follows a similar move in England.

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