Addressing the Assembly Ad-Hoc COVID-19 Response Committee, First Minister Arlene Foster said,
"Mr Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to update the Ad Hoc Committee today. I recognise the critical role that the Assembly must play in responding to this crisis and I am grateful to you and the Assembly for the flexibility you have shown in helping accommodate the Executive at this time. It is important that we all work together to respond to the challenges that we face.
All in the House will wish to join today in sending best wishes to the Prime Minister for a speedy recovery.
It is the intention of the Executive, Mr Speaker, to keep the Assembly informed of our response to COVID-19.
The Minister for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs will make a statement later today. The Minister for Education and the Minister for Communities will give statements to this Committee over the next few days, and the other Executive Ministers will also come before this Committee on a regular basis.
Before I provide an update on the Executive’s work I would like to start by thanking all our healthcare workers for their courage, their compassion, their commitment and their diligence in caring for us all during these difficult times.
We are extremely grateful for the work of all our doctors and nurses, and everyone working in the health service, from the laundry to the laboratory.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all the workers in other sectors who are making sure that there is still food on our tables, the lights are still on, there is clean water from our taps, our bins are being collected and our key workers can get to and from their work, among many other essential tasks.
The thoughts and prayers of all of us across this Assembly will be with the families and loved ones of the deceased.
As of 11:15am on Tuesday 7th April, testing has indicated that the total number of confirmed cases is 1,255.
Our modelling indicates that the peak of the first wave of the epidemic is expected between 6-20 April 2020. Our key messages to the public are therefore more important than ever, and remain the same.
Please stay at home as much as possible, observe social distancing in public and, where a member of a household starts to show symptoms of Covid-19 to self-isolate for 14 days.
We know that the majority of people are taking these measures seriously and doing all that they can to protect the NHS and help save lives. We will be asking that all continue to do the right thing this coming week and over the Easter period.
We recognise that Easter is a time when many families would usually get together, but it is essential that everyone continues to follow the social distancing instructions, as they did over Mother’s Day. This will help protect those who are most vulnerable in our society, as well as those who are working so hard to look after our health.
As an Executive we are continuing to do all that we can to work in a joined up manner to respond to this crisis. We have been working from home and meeting virtually to ensure that we respect the rules on social distancing.
We are engaging with counterparts in both London and Dublin to ensure that every avenue is pursued in protecting our people. We are also engaging further afield. The deputy First Minister and I have had discussions with the Chinese Consul General, Madam Zhang Meifang on securing more equipment to support healthcare staff and sharing medical expertise.
As an Executive we have developed collective strategic priorities focused on looking after
- the health and wellbeing of all of our citizens;
- our economic wellbeing (both in the immediate and short term and the medium to long term); and
- the wellbeing of our community and society.
We are keeping our priorities under constant review so that we can react quickly as the situation develops.
In relation to our health and wellbeing, the concerns about PPE are being treated extremely seriously by this Executive.
The first batch of a fresh order from the NHS was delivered to Northern Ireland on Monday 6 April comprising some 5.5 million items in total. This includes 1,320,000 aprons and 307,800 FFP3 respirator masks. The remainder is expected in coming days. The extra 5.5 million items of PPE for Northern Ireland is very welcome news for our frontline staff.
However, we know that we need to replenish and increase the stock that we hold, given the expected level of demand in the coming weeks.
Efforts to source more PPE are continuing, and this is a constant focus of our Executive meetings. The Minister for Health is actively working with the Minister of Finance to pursue all feasible supply routes, both international and local. It is a global challenge.
Updated UK-wide NHS guidance on PPE use was issued last week. This guidance will inform PPE use across our system and help us to prioritise distribution. I trust that this updated guidance together with securing greater quantities of PPE for Northern Ireland will play a part in allaying concerns.
We recognise that other sectors are also facing PPE challenges, and we have been considering their needs in our Executive meetings, and in our procurement efforts.
I can assure the Assembly that there is no lack of urgency in this matter. We are doing everything we can to best of our ability to get the right PPE to those who need it at the right time.
I can also assure the Assembly that we are working equally as urgently on the important matter of testing.
I am pleased to note that testing for healthcare workers has now commenced at the SSE Arena. The Public Health Agency is involved in this testing initiative, with input from HSC Trust colleagues. This complements work undertaken by Trusts to scale up their own testing capabilities.
We will continue to expand the testing of healthcare staff as quickly as possible. We fully understand the frustration that more staff have not yet been tested, both in the healthcare sector and across other sectors.
We understand that people are concerned about potentially unknowingly passing on the virus to their loved ones, or those they are looking after. And we appreciate that people with Covid-like symptoms are frustrated at having to self-isolate while their colleagues are under pressure, when the results of a test may allow them to get back to work.
However, I can assure you that the difficulties in scaling up testing are not due to a lack of effort or will. There are significant challenges including laboratory and staffing capacity and the unprecedented levels of global demand for testing reagents and swabs.
Testing and PPE are two of the challenges that the Executive are working tirelessly to resolve. At the same time, we are facing multiple challenges across all departments.
The Minister for the Economy has been working with the Covid-19 Engagement Forum to consider important social distancing guidance for our businesses. The Minister has also been working closely with the Minister of Finance to pay out grants to small businesses who are eligible for the Small Business Rate Relief Scheme. As of yesterday, 13,187 grants had been paid and 1,603 other applications were being validated. This will provide some much needed cash flow to businesses and I would urge anyone who thinks their business is entitled to the payment but has not received it to use the online portal to register their details.
Working closely with Executive colleagues, the Minister for Infrastructure has made public transport free for all health and social care workers during this outbreak. This is a small gesture that will help make things a little easier for those who are on the front line in caring for us all during this period.
As we continue to support those who have been affected financially by this crisis, the Minister for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs has announced a substantial support package for our fishing industry to help the fleet survive this difficult period.
The Minister has also been considering the impact on the environment as he has established a Covid-19 Waste Group to provide support, guidance and regulatory direction to the waste sector, who are providing us with essential services during this time.
The Minister for Justice has been working closely with colleagues in the Police Service to ensure that they are able to continue to do their jobs.
The deputy First Minister will provide a further update on some of these issues.