Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Warning: Pandemic surge “of biblical proportions”

With rapidly-evolving, ever-changing circumstances as the Covid-19 (coronavirus) crisis tightens its grip on the country, the one thing we can be sure of is its devastating effects, not only on health, but on the entire economy will be felt for a considerable time to come.

For the foreseeable future, normal life as we know it is over and many will ask what will become the new ‘normal’.  But for now, the one thing everyone can – and must – do to help, is to adhere to the advice of social distancing, restrict contact with people as much as possible, and stay at home to help limit the spread of the virus.

From the Assembly on Thursday, Health Minister Robin Swann painted a sobering picture of what lies ahead.

He spoke as news of the first coronavirus-related death in Northern Ireland was confirmed – an elderly male who had an underlying medical condition and was being treated in a Belfast hospital.

Mr Swann described the scale of the impending surge in infection rates as being “of biblical proportions”.

“Our health service is already fast becoming unrecognisable before our very eyes,” he said.

Speaking later on the BBC’s The View programme, Mr Swann said: “I don’t want to be alarmist… if we take an 80% infection rate of the population of Northern Ireland, and we take a 1% mortality rate out of that, we’re looking at in the region of between 14,000 and 15,000 deaths. That is nightmare, worst-case scenario.”

Mr Swann said the figures highlighted the importance of people taking the advice on social distancing seriously.

“Everyone must follow public health advice, including the advice issued on social distancing.  We all must continue to rigidly follow the advice on hand-washing and ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ when we cough or sneeze and use a tissue.  These are not optional extras. They will help slow the spread of Covid-19 and keep more of our family members, neighbours and friends well.  The more people stay well, the less pressure on our health service. To put it bluntly, doing the right thing is essential if the health service is to get through this,” he said.

The Minister announced a number of measures aimed at helping alleviate the severe pressure on the already-strained NHS.  These include redeploying nurses and healthcare workers to areas of greater need, third year nursing and midwifery students who are due to qualify within six months, would be redeployed to clinical care duties; while final year medical students at Queen’s University, who number around 230, will join the medical register four months early.

Retired nurses and doctors are also being asked to return to the NHS to boost frontline services.

Addressing concerns that there may be an insufficient number of ventilators to treat seriously ill patients, the Department of Health advised that 40 additional mechanical ventilators have been ordered which will bring the total available to 179 by the end of this month.

Through Invest NI, manufacturers have also been approached to help produce more ventilators, the Health Minister has said.

Testing for coronavirus is also to be ramped up.  Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said testing is being extended to healthcare workers in self-isolation, where previously it had been reserved for hospital inpatients.

With the latest update of figures yet to be announced on Sunday evening, at the time of writing, the total number of confirmed cases across the island of Ireland is 893, 108 in Northern Ireland and 785 in the Republic where there has been three deaths related to the virus.