COVID-19: Testing

Oral Answers to Questions — Health – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 16th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP 2:00 pm, 16th March 2020

2. Mr Beattie asked the Minister of Health for an update on the number of people tested for COVID-19. (AQO 354/17-22)

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for his question. Mr Speaker, normally questions of a like-minded subject would be grouped, but I did not do that with questions 1 and 2 because I want to give as many Members as possible an opportunity to ask a supplementary question.

As of 2.00 pm today, 1,171 individuals have been tested for COVID-19 in Northern Ireland, and there have been 52 confirmed positive cases. That is an increase of seven new positive cases from yesterday. For Members' information, prior to 13 March, the total published tests included only those individuals who met the case definition — those who were connected to travel and who met the clinical criteria. However, I would like to assure the House that, during this time, wider testing was also being conducted across all trusts in Northern Ireland. So, for absolute clarity, those individuals are now included in the overall testing results. That would explain why we have seen an approximate jump of 400 tests overnight. We have now expanded the definition of those tests that we actually declare, rather than just those tests that met the case definition.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I thank the Minister for his answer and I want to go on record to thank the Minister, his staff, scientists and healthcare professionals for all that they are doing in combating COVID-19 on our behalf. I will condemn, all day long, anyone who refers to them as "a shire of bastards".

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

Will the Minister give his assessment of the resilience of the local health service in facing what many agree will be the biggest health emergency in generations?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

While this situation is serious, I can advise Members that detailed plans are in place in the event of an outbreak spreading across the UK and the Republic of Ireland with sustained community transmission. Our health service is used to managing infections, and we are prepared. Health systems across the globe are coming under extreme and increasing pressure as this virus spreads. Ours will be no different, and it is bound to take its toll. As I have said, normal business within health and social care may not be possible. Some activities will be scaled back. We had been planning for the first positive case in Northern Ireland and we had robust infection control in place. My Department has established a new directorate for surge planning, as I mentioned earlier. The directorate will work with surge planners in the health and social care system to ensure preparedness across the sector in response to COVID-19. We all, however, have a part to play in helping the health service to cope with this disease by ensuring that we follow Public Health Agency advice and by practising good personal hygiene, which is very effective in preventing the spread of this virus.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I commend the Minister and the Department of Health on dealing with the serious pressure that they are under at this time. We fully appreciate the time that you are giving to address these questions. Of course, I cannot go past all the health workers and professionals involved in helping us to deal with this very serious crisis.

Will the Minister give the House details of where our health professionals can get the most up-to-date information and guidance on how they should be behaving with regard to COVID-19 on a daily basis?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Member for what will be a very important piece of information. While we have been working through this, our Public Health Agency, working alongside the Health and Social Care Board, has been providing updated pieces of guidance and information, frequently asked questions and procedures to a number of health professionals and sectors. Those are available on the Public Health Agency's website and also on the Health and Social Care Board's website. I will say, to the health professionals and anybody else out there, that the reason why we are not sending those out in hard copy, posting them out or giving them as something that people can hold in their hand is that this situation changes so frequently and so often. I ask that those working in the health care system look at that up-to-date online advice, because this situation changes hour by hour, if not day by day.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I thank the Minister for his work over the last week and beyond. I want to come back to an issue that you talked about around symptomatic healthcare workers. I was contacted by a constituent who is now self-isolating. He is very concerned about the number of healthcare workers that he came into contact with before his symptoms manifested themselves. As you know, front-line healthcare workers are given the flu vaccine to protect themselves, their colleagues and their patients. In the absence of a vaccine, do you think it would be beneficial that our front-line staff be tested, as a matter of course, at this stage in the pandemic?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 2:15 pm, 16th March 2020

As I said in an answer earlier, currently we do not have the capacity to provide that screening testing, which, I think, is what the Member refers to, to every member of our health and social care system. However, as I said, our Health and Social Care Board is one of the cohorts that we look at; if any member thinks that they have symptoms of COVID-19, we will make sure that they get a test as appropriate. The last thing that I can afford is for workers in our healthcare system to fall victim to COVID-19. If the Member has a specific name and wants to give me it offline, I will follow it up to see what trust they are in and what provision can be made to get them tested.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his answers thus far. Do we have an accurate figure for the number of people who are self-isolating but are yet to be tested?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

We do not, because, in the change of guidance that we provided, we encouraged people who feel that they have COVID-19-like symptoms to isolate themselves for seven days. We have no central database as to who is self-isolating at this minute in time. However, to those who are doing it, I say thank you. By taking that responsible first step, they are making sure that a member of their family or of the community or a loved one is not being put at risk by them giving them COVID-19 — if they have it. A number of people who are self-isolating at this minute in time may have symptoms that turn out to be flu or cold, but we cannot take that risk. If anybody presents with symptoms of coronavirus, self-isolation for seven days is what is being advised at this minute in time. If their condition worsens, they should certainly contact their GP and present, but, at this minute in time, we do not keep a central register. I am truly grateful to those who are taking the decision to start the social-isolation measures that we will have to adopt very soon.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister, and I commend him on his leadership thus far on what is a very serious and worrying issue for many. I also commend our front-line staff for the great work that they are doing and their families for supporting them in going out there very bravely to support each of us in their role of saving lives.

Minister, my question is focused on life-saving equipment, such as ventilators and hospital beds. Will you provide an insight to the House on the numbers of each of those in each trust area, please?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

The Member will forgive me if I do not have the numbers by trust area. I am surprised that he has not put that down as a question for written answer; he has asked quite a number along those lines. There has been a significant increase of attention on the issue mechanical ventilators following media reports in recent weeks. There are 88 adult ICU beds in Northern Ireland. The critical care network has plans to expand that to 126 adult beds if necessary. There are 139 mechanical ventilators available across Northern Ireland health and social care trusts. To cope with the possible increase in beds, an extra 40 have been ordered — 30 adult units and 10 paediatric units — which will bring the total to 179 by the end of this month.

In regard to beds, we are, as I said, profiling across the National Health Service to ensure that there are cohorts in wards and different hospitals. When it comes to ventilation, we will come to a point, because we have turned down elective surgeries, where we will not use operating theatres, so we will be able to use those ventilation points and ventilators to ventilate patients. That is the detail of plan that we are making for when we get to that stage; we are planning for it now. Be no under no illusion about what is coming down the road at us.