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Statements from Executive Ministers on Covid-19 response – 20 March 2020

10 Mins read
BT Coleraine

First Minister Arlene Foster:

Let me start our daily press briefing by focusing on something positive – those people who are stepping up for the community here in Northern Ireland.

Our frontline healthcare workers who are selfless in their work and their calling to care for others.

Those school teachers who are stepping forward on Monday to accommodate and facilitate children of key workers so mum or dad can go to work and provide healthcare for so many.

To our home bakeries and restaurants who have re-orientated their businesses to provide delivery of meals to the vulnerable and elderly, and to our supermarket and local convenience store workers who continue to provide us with our food and supplies.

These people are the very embodiment of what I talk about when I say we need to embrace a giant spirit – the spirit of Northern Ireland.

These people may not have all the answers, they are all worried about their own families but they are all stepping up. This community doesn’t need selfishness and it certainly doesn’t need abuse.

I was told today that my workers in one of my local chemists were abused today by members of the public because there were no hand sanitisers left.

Frankly these abusers need to be called out – their behaviour is disgusting. I will not stand for it and I will call out selfishness and abusive behaviour whenever I see it.

I know as a community there’s much to fear about, the virus itself and the economic personal consequences, but here’s the positive message every one of us has the power to delay and ultimately end the cycle of infection.

Simply wash your hands frequently and stay a safe distance from others.

Life in Northern Ireland will be different, as it is across the World, for a time, but that time will come to an end and we must be able to come out the other side. We will do that by having each other’s backs.

Later I am hopeful that we will hear about a comprehensive package for our working community in Northern Ireland and across the UK – we will be making further comment when it comes but for now I’ll pass to the dFM

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill:

Today we have had 9 new positive cases of Covid-19 bringing the total of confirmed cases across the north to 86.

We know in reality that many more people are suffering from this virus.

The impact of this virus right across society gets deeper with every hour.

We are ramping up our response to this crisis.

This morning we had our first meeting of the Executive’s Covid Crisis Management Committee where we are working together; focusing on the most pressing issues and bringing solutions as to how we can best deal with them to make sure people have the information and support that they need.

These are now daily crisis meetings to make sure we are taking action on the immediate, emerging situation.

We are all too aware of the urgency with which decisions have to be made.

As this pandemic takes hold here locally, people are becoming more worried, more anxious.

Our people need clarity; our businesses need clarity; our workers need clarity.

Everyone needs support to get through this, and that support must be properly resourced.

We are expecting today an announcement from the British government around a financial package which I believe must protect livelihoods, support our workers, and families.

We in the Executive will continue to do everything that we can to bring forward measures to make sure people are protected, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most at risk from the health, financial and social impacts of this disease.

I know we keep emphasising and re-emphasising the importance of handwashing and social distancing.

And I make no apologies for doing so again. Because, quite simply, it will save lives.

So please, follow the public health advice.

Wash your hands often, and for at least 20 seconds.

Please follow the guidelines on social distancing for everyone and self-isolation for those who need to.

If we all do that, we can and will save lives. Together, we can reduce the number of deaths by up to a third.

Please don’t think that this is an issue for others. This is an issue for all of us.

It doesn’t matter how young you are, or how healthy you are; your actions will affect others – particularly those who are vulnerable.

If ever there was a time to be selfless, this is it.

Now Deirdre and Nichola are going give you some detail on some of the measures they, and the Executive, have introduced in this developing situation.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey:

We are in the midst of a global pandemic and public health emergency.

As Minister for Communities I will do all I can to protect the health, welfare and wellbeing of all of the people here.

Everyone, councils, the voluntary/community sector, businesses, workers and communities need to work together and step up to this challenge in the interests of all.

My focus is on the people and communities most at risk financially and socially.

I am working to relieve hardship and the negative impact on our wellbeing.

These actions range from building early flexibility to our social security system to working with the voluntary and community sector to ensure people most in need get the help and support they require.

In an attempt to reduce the risk of this terrible virus spreading further this week I authorised that people no longer have to attend our Jobs and Benefits offices for assessments – these will now be carried out by telephone, or by considering medical evidence submitted by post and we are exploring ways to make this system more flexible.

All routine appointments at our JBOs have been postponed to protect those visiting those offices and those working in them.

Those already receiving benefits will continue to receive their payments.

Work Coaches are communicating with them via their on-line journal, the phone or will simply re-schedule appointments for a later date. Nobody will be penalised as a result of not attending the office.

Additional telephone support has been made available to help people with their new claim and we are working hard to meet demand at such an exceptionally busy period. All follow up activities will be managed on-line or over the phone.

I am also bringing forward plans to deal with food poverty and free school meals and hope to announce details on these in the coming period.

Covid-19 presents a challenge for us all but it presents very particular challenges to those are homeless and those who support them in shelters, hostels and emergency accommodation.

The Housing Executive, who lead on the response to homelessness, is working with my Department and others on a surge plan and I will work with Executive colleagues to ensure this important area is resourced and people are supported.

Guidance will be published shortly via the Department of Health for homeless providers and this will continue to be reviewed and updated as required.

I am also working on measures to protect those people renting.

The role of community organisations has never been more important as we seek to protect people who might be vulnerable across our communities. I’ve been heartened with the community response that is already kicking in.

Volunteers and community activists are pulling together and seeking to work with government as we tackle this threat to public health together. I want to make sure that whatever help I can put in place is there to make sure this important work is supported.

Today I met with representatives of the community and voluntary sectors to establish a Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Leadership Group which will play a vital role in supporting our communities during and after this emergency.

Today I also authorised the immediate release of £200K which matches the money that the Community Foundation is committing to tackling this crisis at a local level.

I have taken steps to ensure that flexibility is there for groups who are responding to the threat presented by Covid-19, who might otherwise be thinking about delivery targets or administration. We need to support people to do the right thing right now.

I am bringing forward very quickly a Covid-19 related Community Contingency Fund. As things develop over the coming weeks, I want to make sure that funding will be available where it is needed by groups who are supporting people who are socially isolated, struggling financially or who can’t access food supplies.

I will continuously review the situation and work with other departments across the Executive to coordinate our response.

In the coming days further interventions will be announced to support those most affected, and I will also be announcing support for our culture, arts and sports sectors which are feeling the effects of this crisis.

I want to finally commend all our staff across the civil service who are all going the extra mile to ensure delivery of essential front line services to those most in need.

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon:

This is not an easy time for any of us. I want to be clear to people at home, you must follow the advice strictly, the lessons we have learned from around the world are difficult for all of us to hear. But we must understand, that we are not any different, we must act and we must act now. In every household, in every workplace, going about our day to day lives, we must put health and safety first.

The advice is clear – all non-essential contact and non-essential travel must be avoided.

I know this is a frightening time.

That is why it is the time for leadership – leadership within this Government, within our communities and within our households.

The huge burden of responsibility to keep others safe falls to us all. That is why I am appealing to people, alongside my colleagues, to act now to protect our families, friends – our elderly population and our health service.

The heroes on the frontline – deserve more than our thanks – they need us to act. Together we can delay this virus and we can help save lives.

Today I want to outline some of the decisions I have taken & the measures I have put in place to keep people safe.

From Monday 23 March, Translink will operate a reduced bus and train service. Buses will run on a holiday timetable and NI Railways will operate a Saturday timetable. Translink is also reducing its service timetable for cross-border coach and Enterprise rail services.

These measures will have a dramatic impact on our public transport network but it is the right step to take given the clear advice from government to avoid all non-essential travel and on social distancing and the effectiveness of this in the fight against Covid-19. Advice we must all follow.

The changes to the timetables will ensure we can continue to provide public transport coverage across Northern Ireland while responding to the impact of reduced demand. The public should be assured – for those who need to travel, public transport will continue to operate and we will continue to ensure all those using public transport can do so safely in line with guidance on social distancing.

My department is doing everything it can to ensure essential services and connections are maintained for those using and reliant on our infrastructure network. I will keep the public transport situation under constant review in line with government advice on public health.

Keeping people safe at this concerning time will cause inconvenience to customers and businesses, but it is necessary.

That is why I have already moved to suspend driving tests for three months until Monday 22 June 2020, but this will be kept under review.

Where there are exceptional circumstances, for example, for emergency workers and essential service drivers needing a driving test, the DVA will make all reasonable efforts to accommodate these customers.

In addition to the recent changes I made regarding deliveries to supermarkets and shops, I have now relaxed drivers’ hour’s rules for home deliveries until 2 April, to ensure supplies can be delivered to the doors of those working remotely or self-isolating. I will be keeping the situation under constant review and will ensure measures are taken to extend the relaxation further if required.

This will help ensure that food, non-food such as personal care and cleaning products, over the counter pharmaceuticals and other essential items can be delivered directly to consumers’ homes.

I am of course mindful that at all times safety is paramount and employers remain responsible for the health and safety of their employees.

I have also written to councils to make it clear that they should not take unnecessary enforcement action against public houses, restaurants and cafes operating takeaway services during the coronavirus crisis.

These measures will provide vital flexibility to public houses, restaurants and cafes to keep operating and will ensure people are able to safely stay at home while still supporting local businesses.

As of today, Crumlin Road Gaol car park beside the Mater Hospital has been opened for free for health service workers and I will continue to explore other ways my department can support those on the frontline.

I will continue to hold stakeholders teleconferences so I can hear concerns from those across the North. I know time is short and that everyone is working to get the answers we so desperately need. I want to assure people my priority is swift decision making and clear, consistent communication.

My Department has well-rehearsed emergency plans which have been reviewed in recent weeks and procedures are being kept under review in light of any new advice from the Public Health Agency. My department continues to work closely with other agencies and I am clear that no effort will be spared.

My officials are working closely with NI Water. NI Water has a well-tested major incident response regime in place to respond to operational emergencies and its priority continues to be ensuring the continued provision of water and wastewater services to customers while maintaining the safety and wellbeing of staff.

Actions are being put in place to ensure our emergency frontline services for traffic control and flooding defences are ready during this period of unprecedented challenge.

I can also announce today that my Department has activated its emergency response plan and officials are working through the mechanics to ensure all that can be done is being done to keep our people and places safe.

In the forthcoming days and weeks there is a lot to do – we have some answers – but not them all. I am proud of my department’s effort and the tireless work of my staff to do all we can to add to the effort. I appeal to people to be patient, to act to keep yourself and others safe – and to support those on the frontline. I promise to do all that I can, as quick as I can, as we face into these dark and trying days together.

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