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We are halfway through our month of measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 across our communities.

Today in the Executive we have considered the impact of the tighter restrictions on infection rates.

And it’s fair to say that there are green shoots of hope. As the Health Minister outlined earlier this week, the North-West area has seen an encouraging decrease of over 50% in positive cases.

In fact, right across Northern Ireland we are seeing a steadying of the number of people who have been diagnosed with the virus. The medical and scientific advice is that the R rate for case numbers has dropped below 1, for the first time since early summer, and indeed is below 1 in ten of our eleven council areas.

While this is good news, we still have more work to do.

And very sadly we are seeing the heart-breaking news that over the last week the numbers of those who have died has risen by 47. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and with every family that has been touched by this brutal and unrelenting virus.

We are all in this together. And there is evidence of the impact of the restrictions being observed.

From publically available data compared with a baseline from January and February, activity with the current restrictions has decreased significantly up to October 20th across a range of areas. Public transport usage is down by 49% in Northern Ireland, recreation and retail by 33%, workplaces by 41% and park visitors by 26%- all lower than the UK-wide picture.

Supermarket and pharmacy activity is also down by 8%.

And the Executive is committed to supporting all of those who are experiencing difficult times during this pandemic.

Today we have put in place a package of around £687 million to support people, jobs, education and our health service.

This includes:

  • Around £61 million will support the continued safe education of children and young people
  • Additional funding of £7.3 million for our local Hospices and Cancer Fund for Children
  • Up to £25 million will be made available for two new support packages for taxi drivers and private bus or coach operators.
  • £6.5m for a blend of community initiatives to support those in need
  • And we are committing around half a billion to our health services.

We discussed additional support for dealing with the current surge, our HSC capacity, test and trace arrangements, and progress on new rapid testing. We considered the stepping up of ICU beds at the City Hospital Tower Block and elsewhere, and raised the available workforce with the Health Minister and whether there is scope to expand the pool available to us.

We recognise that highly skilled anaesthetists and ICU nurses are relatively finite. However we are hearing of simpler issues where we might be able to help spread the load and make the system more efficient, such as cleaning and preparing ambulances for turnaround.

We recognise, and are immensely grateful for, the efforts being made across our health and care services, and the number of staff off work is actually lower than it was last week. The Health Minister updated us that around 4,000 staff are currently off work but three quarters of those are with what would be considered standard sickness in line with every other year as reported through HR. The absence of approximately 1,100 staff is Covid-related, equivalent to 1.6% of the workforce, which is in keeping with the first surge in spring.

We were also advised that 10 % of the 2,700 people who have responded to the workforce appeal have already been appointed, or their appointment is imminent.

Officials in our civil contingencies group are meeting again on a regular basis.

As I have said before, we are now living with the reality of Covid-19.

But we have learned a lot over the seven months.

We know more about how it is operating in our community and the many ways we can keep each other safe.

The STOPCovid-19 app is an example of this. This is proving to be a powerful tool in the identification and tracking of cases. It now has inter-operability with Scotland and Jersey as well as the Republic of Ireland, with England and Wales to follow. Our local teams are to be commended for their innovative and ground-breaking work and I would urge everyone to download the app today.

We must all redouble our efforts.

This weekend we have Hallowe’en and while we would like all those who are young and young at heart to fully enjoy themselves – we would ask you to do so safely and in line with the public health guidance.

And of course on Monday our schools will re-open after their short break. The Education Minister updated the Executive on measures to mitigate against schools-related spread of the virus. While rates of transmission are low in schools, it is the activity and mingling outside school for example at school gates that is particular concern, and messaging will be rolled out this over coming days.

The Executive has agreed today that face coverings will be mandatory for all post-primary school children on all dedicated home-to-school and public transport. Exemptions will apply for example for those with special educational needs or other relevant disabilities.

We are seeing positive signs that our efforts are having an effect on this virus, we have two more weeks to go.

We have so much to gain, let’s not slip back.

Stay safe, and save lives