Good afternoon and thank you for waiting but also thank you to the people right across Northern Ireland for working with us.
Over the last number of days, I have received many messages from people about the situation in Northern Ireland. Many are concerned about their health or that of their loved ones, many are anxious and, in some cases, despondent about their jobs and businesses and above everything people want to see an end to the Covid-19 pandemic and all the restrictions on their lives.
I understand and share many of those concerns and worries. Whilst some focus on our disagreements, I believe every elected representative, regardless of party label, is trying to do the best they can so that we can get through this pandemic.
However, there are no easy answers or solutions. The threat from covid-19 is real. Our hospitals, and sadly our cemeteries, testify to that.
But we cannot keep closing the country down or forcing specific sectors to close in order to beat back this virus. That strategy, designed to buy time, is in reality a failure and will ultimately ensure total despair engulfs all of our people. We cannot allow that to happen. Every part of our society must adapt and learn to live with the virus.
This pandemic has already cost too many lives, too many restrictions on our liberties and within our families and too many jobs, businesses and shattered dreams. The impact on mental health will be unquantifiable for some time to come. Our health service, already in need of reform prior to Covid-19, is struggling to cope with the burdens of the pandemic as well the need to treat everyday patients.
The rising numbers of Covid-19 cases meant action was needed to protect our hospitals. Doing nothing was not an option.
On average, over 1,000 people are being diagnosed with the virus every day. And a rising number are being admitted to hospital. At the moment 289 people are inpatients, which is just 10% less than the figures for the first wave earlier this year.
And this is squeezing the provision of healthcare for other serious conditions.
We know our hospitals are extremely busy and we are grateful for the efforts of staff, but there are some signs we can all take a degree of hope from.
There are early indications that our shared effort is turning this tide. There is a slowing rate of infection, albeit it is still at a high level.
Our senior advisers are optimistic that we might reach a point soon where the average number of cases will begin to fall.
They expect the peak of Covid inpatients to be similar to the Spring, and that this might be reached over the next week. Bed occupancy and ICU admissions are also likely to peak in the next ten days.
In the North West, where tighter restrictions have been in place for longer, there is clear evidence of change with a significant drop of 30% in cases.
Across Northern Ireland public transport usage, workplace and recreational activity have all decreased this week. When action is taken, we can drive down that ‘R’ rate but such measures also bring other costs.
We have sought to make balanced and proportionate decisions, taking into account the need to protect lives and livelihoods. We must weigh up the long-term impact of restrictions and the effect that poverty has upon health. With five parties around the Executive table, there will always be different approaches and opinions.
Looking forward, it is vital that plans and actions to take Northern Ireland through this pandemic are built on the foundation that this virus will be with us for some time ahead and society must be able to co-exist with it. Key to that must be increasing the capacity of our hospitals and the wider health service to deal with these increased pressures. For our part if we need support from other parts of the United Kingdom and, or, the military we will be prepared to support the Health Minister in asking for it.
Central to a successful path forward too must be scaling up our test, trace and protect system; generating more detailed data from that and using that evidence to aid more precise and effective actions in the future. It is time to expand this tracing system and roll out a programme for weekly testing if necessary to ensure our key workers are able to be in hospitals, clinics, classrooms and other vital services. Getting workers back from isolation in the health service is vitally important.
I want to see us work in partnership with those in sectors who have been hardest hit. Our best asset in Northern Ireland is our workforce and we cannot expect them to continue to take the hit in the months ahead. Just as it was possible to secure a return to schools it is possible to develop a sustainable model for our hospitality and close contact sectors so that they can re-open in a way that bolsters the trace and contact system and is designed to withstand the Covid environment that will exist in the period ahead.
So we will work to support an increase in NHS capacity, we will support greater resources for the test and tracing system and we want to harness new testing technology to support our people in the months ahead.
I want to reinforce this afternoon the healthcare workforce appeal, for those with skills and experience to come forward. Almost 3,000 applicants have already done so but bear in mind that is in the context of around 2,700 regular health and care staff being off work for Covid-related reasons.
For those willing to return to or join our health teams, further information is available at www.hscworkforceappeal.co.uk
I assure you that the present restrictions will not be in place for a moment longer than they need to be.
But we do need to bear in mind that, until there is a vaccine, that we will be living with this virus for some time.
It is key to our recovery and renewal that we adapt and learn, and transform the way we deal with the risk of Covid-19.
We know that people are not just worried about their health, they are also concerned about jobs, putting food on the table and making sure that the life chances of our children and young people are protected.
And today the Executive has agreed to provide funding support of over £1.3m for payments in lieu of Free School meals for the period 19th October to 23rd October; and also to make funding available for the following week too. Ministers will bring proposals next week to cover the second week of the extended half-term break in an effort to assist families experiencing food vulnerability.
As we plan for exiting these restrictions and coexisting with the virus, we will need to plan and communicate for significant points of importance for our citizens, including Halloween, Remembrance events, Christmas and other faith celebrations and observances, and the New Year. We have tasked teams to draft plans for these fixed events.
Over the next few weeks, please think about the large and small steps you can take to reduce your risk of exposure to this virus and make sure you do not pass it on to others.
Remember that this virus does not spread itself.
Limit your contact with others as much as you can.
Keep washing your hands regularly and often.
And remember this is not a ‘pick and mix’ menu. A face covering must be worn in shops and other public spaces. But this does not mean that you can drop the two-metre rule.
These are small steps but together they can have a big impact.
Please download the Stop COVID-19 app, act promptly on advice about testing and follow the guidance on self-isolating.
In closing, the challenges we all face at present are without comparison in modern time.
Every person in Northern Ireland can make a difference in the days, weeks and months ahead. By observing the regulations and by following the public health messages of washing hands, wearing your mask and keeping your distance you will make a real difference in the next few weeks. Please help us to help you and together we can reignite the flame of hope across Northern Ireland.