Coronavirus: Health worker testing starts in NI as eight more deaths recorded

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Coronavirus testing for health workers has started in Belfast just days before the expected surge of cases.

Staff were arriving at the car park of the SSE Arena throughout Saturday for appointments to be tested.

Northern Ireland health minister Robin Swann had announced the site on Friday as part of a UK-wide NHS initiative on staff testing in which Randox and Deloitte are key partners.

It came after calls for more widespread testing to allow those self-quarantining to be cleared for return to work.

A drive-through testing centre for health workers has opened in the car park of the SSE arena in Belfast (Press Eye/PA)

“Staff testing numbers are expanding and will continue to do so as rapidly as possible,” he said.

“I fully understand the frustration that we have not been able to scale up testing numbers more quickly.

“This is not down to a lack of will or action. There are significant challenges, including laboratory and staffing capacity and the unprecedented levels of global demand for testing reagents and swabs.”

The chairman of the British Medical Council in Northern Ireland, Dr Tom Black, welcomed the opening of the Covid-19 centre in Belfast for healthcare workers.

He said: “The opening of this centre will hopefully see a much-needed increase in testing of healthcare staff, enabling them to return to work quickly and, most importantly, prevent patients from potentially becoming unwell with Covid-19 themselves.

“We are about to enter the ‘peak’ two-week surge of the coronavirus here, during which our health service system will be stretched to levels we have never experienced before.

“This is why it is vital to test as many healthcare workers as possible as we need as many hands on deck in the coming weeks to care for patients.”

Paramedics attacks in Northern Ireland
A paramedic with an ambulance from the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (Rebecca Black/PA)

A new level of escalation will include a specific Covid-19 protocol to categorise 999 calls.

It will involve specific questioning of patients for coronavirus symptoms so crews can prepare with the appropriate personal protective equipment.

“As the demand on ambulance services increases, this protocol also enables NIAS to ensure that all patients with immediately life-threatening and serious conditions, whether or not they are related to Covid-19, will be prioritised for the most immediate response,” the NIAS said.

“Regrettably, it may be necessary to withhold an ambulance response to calls and deal with some calls through triage.

“These will be calls which have been assessed as less serious in nature and do not need an ambulance response.

“NIAS apologises to any patients who may find themselves in this situation but we would ask for your understanding in advance.

“These are exceptional circumstances requiring exceptional measures.

“NIAS will continue to monitor and review our response capacity and will react to any improvement in the situation without delay.”

A woman walks past graffiti calling on people to wash their hands during the Covid-19 crisis in east Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

In its daily update, the Public Health Agency said testing had resulted in 94 new positive cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the region to 998.

The latest figures came after Friday saw the highest number of deaths in one day announced with 12.

So far Belfast has seen the majority of cases, followed by the Lisburn and Castlereagh council area, while Causeway Coast and Glens has seen the fewest.

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