Northern Ireland’s Nightingale facility at Belfast City Hospital has been “prioritised for de-escalation”, the region’s health minister has said.
Robin Swann said that, as the pressures from the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic reduce, the health service is “de-escalating” the ICU to rebuild elective care services.
“Belfast City Hospital normally hosts our complex high-priority surgery on behalf of the region so I’m keen that we scale up this high-priority surgery as quickly as possible,” he told the Stormont Health Committee.
Critical care for Covid patients will be delivered at the Mater Hospital.
“Elective care rebuild must reflect a regional prioritisation to ensure that those in most clinical need, regardless of place of residence, are prioritised,” he said.
“I have asked our trusts to proceed with developing ambitious rebuild plans to cover the initial period from April to June.”
Mr Swann said that, of 1,076 surgeries cancelled across January and February, 86.2% have been rescheduled or completed, with 149 still being worked on.
“That level of those still waiting is continually decreasing,” he said.
However, Mr Swann sounded a note of caution around the potential impact of new variants once restrictions start to be relaxed.
“It’s not something, from a personal point of view, that I think we should ever develop in Northern Ireland, that we would need to provide certification of vaccination to enter a cinema or a restaurant, that’s not something that sits comfortably with me,” he said.
Mr Swann said talks are taking place at a UK-wide level about possible certification for international travel.
While the Executive’s Pathway to Recovery plan does not include any dates for relaxations, P1 to P3 primary school children are to return to school on March 8.
Mr Swann said “good progress” is still being made in the pandemic but the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 “remains high”, and there is “slight growth” in case numbers again.
“Therefore I must emphasise that if increasing social contact goes again too quickly, we may find ourselves back in the cycle that we’ve seen, but we know the rollout of the vaccination programme continues to make good progress and is expected to have a substantial impact on the epidemic in the medium to longer term,” he told MLAs.
He said the planned inoculation of those aged 50 and over in April will be a “monumental step in a population-wide vaccination programme”.
Mr Swann also highlighted the “ongoing risk of increased transmissibility from new variants of the virus that have been identified elsewhere”.
He said cases of the South African variant have been confirmed in Northern Ireland over the last week.
He said no cases of the Brazilian variant have been reported in the region so far.
“The full impact of the new variants will only be seen when measures are relaxed and the R number may rise more than would previously have been the case,” he said.
Mr Swann also rejected an assertion by deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill that infection rates in Northern Ireland are “much worse” than across the rest of the UK or the Republic of Ireland.
“It’s not a description of our infection rates that I would use,” he said.