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Executive Daily Update: Initiatives to deal with Coronavirus

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Northern Ireland Executive Ministers and their officials have over the last 24 hours been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.

Further details were released today about the £933 million funding allocated for the Northern Ireland Executive’s response to COVID-19.

In addition to the £634.8 million already earmarked by Ministers for a range of initiatives, the Finance Minister Conor Murphy announced almost £300 million for the health service, for measures to protect the vulnerable and to support business.

– £150 million has been set aside for the purchase of Personal Protection Equipment for healthcare workers and other frontline workers.
– A further £65 million has been allocated to the Department of Health to help the fight against Covid-19.
– £15.3 million has been identified to support initiatives for the most vulnerable in society including a weekly food box service for over 10,000 people, grants for older people and support for the homeless. An additional £10 million will also go towards further interventions to support vulnerable members of society.
– £12 million has been provided for Emergency Childcare provision for key workers.
– An additional £0.4 million will go to the Youth Service to support the Department for Communities’ provision of food for vulnerable young people.
– The PSNI will receive £4 million to maintain critical services during Covid-19.
– £40 million has been held aside for support for businesses and workers who have fallen through the gaps in initiatives announced so far.
Details of the package emerged while the First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill took part in a series of conference calls to consider the response to COVID-19 across these islands.

The First Minister and deputy First Minister participated in a COBR meeting with the UK Government and the devolved administrations to assess the situation and strategy in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales.

They were joined by the Health Minister Robin Swann for the second conference call with the Irish Government and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to consider the response on the island.

Justice Minister Naomi Long and Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey also took part in discussions with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister about how the victims of domestic violence could be supported during the COVID-19 crisis.

Education Minister Peter Weir and Health Minister Robin Swann outlined a package of measures, worth around £12 million, to support vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

They include:

– A bespoke Approved Home Childcare Scheme aimed at enabling key workers to have their childcare needs met in their own homes;
– Enhanced support for registered childminders who provide childcare for key workers and vulnerable children;
– Support for registered daycare settings to remain open for key workers and vulnerable children in locations where key worker parents need them most and for those settings which have been forced to close;
– Childcare advice and guidance for parents who are key workers, including a helpline; and
– Advice and guidance for registered settings and providers.

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon and Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots put further community transport measures in place to ensure vulnerable people in rural areas isolated as a result of COVID-19 have access to vital services.

Community transport operators will from today be able to repurpose Dial-A-Lift services to help the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and the disabled, to access shops and services for everyday requirements.

Instead of transporting people to services, services will be transported to the most vulnerable.

Minister Poots also announced £200,000 has been allocated to the emergency ‘Coronavirus Community Fund’.

The Community Foundation NI will consider applications for grants up to £10,000 to community organisations to deliver targeted practical support for the vulnerable and isolated, especially in rural areas and those of all ages who are at increased risk due to poor mental health and wellbeing.

Minister Poots also announced farmers with herds overdue a TB test would not face any restrictions for 35 days, as opposed to seven days because of the need for social distancing.

Moves to slaughter will continue to be allowed, while the position regarding bovine TB remains under review. Abattoir surveillance will continue, with all animals slaughtered for human consumption subject to ante and post mortem inspection.

Carcasses will still be examined for visible signs of bovine TB infection, amongst other things. Disclosure of suspect visible signs (or lesions) of bovine TB will, subject to veterinary risk assessment, result in the exclusion of either the infected part of the carcass or the entire carcass from human consumption. Samples will be sent for further laboratory examination and the finding will also trigger the application of disease control measures to the herd presenting the animal.

The Department of Health launched a second version of its COVID-19 mobile app today, giving members of the public up-to-date advice at their fingertips.

The new version, which is available for downloads on Apple and Google platforms, offers improved navigation, more detailed guides, updated links to latest reports and an updated symptom checker based on latest information.

It continues to help members of the public to:

– decide if they or someone they care for have the symptoms of coronavirus;
– understand the severity of their symptoms and what to do and how to cope;
– decide if they need to get clinical advice and how to access it;
– access specific advice for vulnerable members of the community; and
– get an isolation note if they are advised to self-isolate.

Like the first version, the updated app does not ask users to submit any personal data other than their age, to determine the advice they receive, and their post code, to ensure they are a Northern Ireland resident.

The previous version has already been downloaded over 43,000 times since it was launched on 27 March and has met with strong approval from users. It is used several thousand times per day with hundreds of specific questions posed to the COVID-19 NI advice and guidance ‘chat-bot’ – software that responds in real time to questions from users.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds confirmed her officials are working closely with the Department of Education, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessments, other regulators, awarding organisations and other governments to identify the fairest way of awarding vocational qualifications during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With scheduled assessments and exams for vocational qualifications unable to proceed, Minister Dodds vowed to provide details about how qualifications would be awarded at the earliest possible opportunity.

The Minister said her Department had made it a priority to ensure that vocational learners receive fair and equitable results in a way that reflected their efforts to date and also allowed for due consideration of pathways to employment or to further learning.

The use of technology to deliver justice services during the COVID-19 emergency is providing significant learnings about how it might be harnessed in the future, Justice Minister Naomi Long revealed.

After a meeting of the Criminal Justice Board reviewing how justice services are being delivered, Minister Long paid tribute to how staff across justice organisations and agencies had responded quickly to the challenge of the pandemic, taking decisions in line with Public Health Agency guidance.

“Some of those decisions have been difficult; from reducing court locations and listing emergency business only, to reducing our prison population through a temporary release scheme. Every decision has been taken in a calm and considered way and it is this approach which has ensured that, at every stage, the integrity of the justice system has remained intact,” the Minister said.

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