Northern Ireland Executive ministers and their officials have over the past 24 hours been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.
Four major supermarket chains will ensure people forced to shield during the Covid-19 crisis will get priority home delivery slots, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey and Health Minister Robin Swann announced today.
The agreement emerged after discussions involving officials from the Department for Communities and the Health and Social Care Board with Asda, Iceland, Sainsbury’s and Tesco.
Noting almost 80,000 people in Northern Ireland had been advised by their GP to self-isolate during the pandemic, Minister Hargey said those impacted could register online to be considered for the priority delivery slots by filling in a form available on NI Direct.
The Minister explained: “It will ask you to confirm if your GP has advised you to self-isolate, your name, address and email, and that you agree for us to share your data. My Department will then check your eligibility and share your details with the four retailers. The retailers will contact you directly to advise what delivery slots are available. Work continues to examine the ways in which support of this type could be provided to all of those most vulnerable.”
Welcoming the announcement, Minister Swann added: “This collaboration between the Department for Communities, the HSCB and retailers will provide peace of mind to our most vulnerable, knowing that they have access to this essential service and will be able to get the food that they need, delivered straight to their home. Finding a solution that was safe and secure was a huge undertaking and I am grateful to all those who have worked hard to make this happen.”
Council workers were told their jobs do qualify for protection under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS).
Following consultation with the 11 councils and the Department of Finance, Minister Hargey was able to confirm to the Executive that local government could apply under the scheme to furlough staff.
Economy Minister Diane Dodds announced today a £40 million Hardship Fund is being made available to microbusinesses who cannot avail of the existing support schemes during the Covid-19 lockdown.
With an estimated 8,000 businesses across Northern Ireland eligible for the fund, Minister Dodds explained: “Social enterprises and charities will be able to access the fund if they meet the eligibility criteria.
“Details on the scheme, including eligibility criteria and arrangements for applying, will be released next week. This fund should mean that around a third of all businesses in Northern Ireland will now be able to access support under the Northern Ireland Covid-19 grant schemes.”
Minister Dodds also visited today the Southern Regional College’s Lurgan campus to see how one of their teams has used laser cutting technology to produce 1,000 face shields for frontline health workers in over four weeks.
The PPE produced on the Lurgan campus has been distributed to the Newry Hospice, community nursing and acute care teams in the Southern Trust, the Leonard Cheshire Care Home, Aughnacloy Care Home, Gordons Chemist, R4 Recycling, the support team in Newry Care Home, the Ulster Hospital, Banbridge community nurses, Hills Pharmacy, Orchard Pharmacy, Sandringham Care Home, the Samuel Kelly Care Home and Ashgrove Nursing Home.
The Minister noted: “Since the campus was closed to students, the team at Southern Regional College in Lurgan have been producing plastic facial visors at pace. To have reached the milestone of 1,000 pieces made in such a short period of time is testament to their dedication, skill and hard work.”
Health Minister Robin Swann also paid tribute to the team, saying: “The provision of PPE to our frontline workers is an absolute priority. We continue to actively pursue all feasible supply routes for PPE, both locally and internationally. The work being undertaken by SRC’s Lurgan campus staff is just one example of the amazing response we have seen from all parts of society as we work together to tackle the impact of Covid-19.”
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon announced plans for a new walking and cycling champion with a particular focus on transforming communities and developing creative solutions during and post the Covid-19 lockdown.
In a statement to the Assembly, Minister Mallon told MLAs: “Our champion will ensure that we deliver our commitment to increase the percentage of journeys made by walking and cycling. Inspiring our communities, restructuring our spaces, changing forever the way we live – and changing it for the better.
“As the Executive looks this week to review the lockdown – we all need to be looking ahead – out of the darkness of this pandemic and into a better world that we need to build for ourselves. Greener, cleaner, healthier and happier people and places must be our aim as we learn to live with this new normal during and after Covid-19.”