NORTHERN Ireland Executive ministers and their officials have over the past 72 hours been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.
Socially distanced gatherings of up to six people will be permitted and places of worship can be reopened for acts of individual prayer under the latest round of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions to be lifted by Ministers.
Under the terms of the Executive’s five step roadmap to recovery, First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill announced:
* Churches and other places of worship will be allowed to reopen their doors for individual prayer, provided they can adhere to all social distancing and public hygiene requirements.
* Drive-in religious services will also be permitted – provided people remain in their cars and the proper social distancing and hygiene advice is followed.
* Drive-in cinemas will also be allowed. Concerts and live theatre may also be facilitated but those attending must remain in their cars and adhere to the social distancing and hygiene guidelines.
* Outdoor activities that do not involve shared contact with hard surfaces will be permitted.
* Outdoor gatherings of up to six people not from the same household will be allowed but everyone must adhere to social distancing and public health guidelines.
* Councils will be authorised to act as enforcement bodies with regards the safe operation of not just their own household waste facilities but sites where certain types of exercise is permissible.
First Minister Foster commented: “The relaxations that we have announced today have been made possible by the vast majority of you faithfully following the public health advice on self-isolation, on shielding, on social distancing and on limiting your activities in public and washing your hands thoroughly.
"They have been hard won freedoms and it is vital that when you exercise those freedoms you do it in a way that does not put anybody else’s safety at risk.
"As we move through the lifting of restrictions under Step 1 of our roadmap, we must proceed cautiously and adhere to public health advice. That is going to allow us to open up more freedoms in due course but you should remember if you are exhibiting the symptoms of Coronavirus, then you need to self-isolate.”
Deputy First Minister O’Neill added: “It is exactly two months today since we had our first Coronavirus related death here and while we are making good progress and we have come a long way, we certainly aren’t out of the woods yet.
"We have repeatedly cautioned the public not to become complacent because this virus is still among us and it is still a deadly virus and it is still taking the lives of individuals.
"We are working slowly and carefully to ease our way out of the lockdown, to restart community life and reboot the economy, to keep people in work and keep society functioning.”
The four Chief Medical Officers of the four nations of the UK today added the loss of a person’s sense of smell to the symptoms for Covid-19.
The change was announced in a joint statement issued by the Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Dr Frank Atherton, the Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland, Dr Michael McBride, the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, Dr Gregor Smith and the Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty.
The four Chief Medical Officer’ statement said: “From today, all individuals should self-isolate if they develop a new continuous cough or fever or anosmia. Anosmia is the loss or a change in your normal sense of smell. It can also affect your sense of taste as the two are closely linked. We have been closely monitoring the emerging data and evidence on Covid-19 and, after thorough consideration, we are now confident enough to recommend this new measure.”
Under the current guidelines, anyone exhibiting any of these symptoms should self-isolate for 14 days along with members of their household, unless the patient receives a negative test result.
Health Minister Robin Swann today announced Covid-19 testing will now be made available to all care home residents and staff next month across Northern Ireland.
The roll-out of testing to all residents will be completed next month and a rolling testing programme for staff in all care homes will be put in place.
Minister Swann explained: “Testing right across the care home sector is easier to demand than to deliver. It has always been my intention to over-deliver rather than to over-promise. Following detailed planning and preparatory work, I can now confirm that testing will be available to all residents and staff.”
The Minister added that in delivering additional testing, his officials had had to address important sensitivities such as the human rights of residents who may not consent to being tested or not be able to give their consent because of dementia.
He said: “The swab test for Covid-19 can be an unpleasant and intrusive process, so there are also issues in relation to subjecting frail older persons to swabbing, particularly in homes where there are no outbreaks. I am confident a way forward will be found on these issues, in close consultation with care home staff, residents and their family members.”
At present in Northern Ireland, care home staff and families have access to testing if they have symptoms. All staff and residents are also tested in homes when two or more people - staff or residents - have symptoms, as this is a possible outbreak scenario. Testing is underway for all residents and staff in homes where there have been previous outbreaks that have not been resolved.