- in Environment
New Covid-19 testing capacity unveiled this week means Northern Ireland is now closer to hitting its targets.
In recent weeks, senior ministers have discussed hopes to carry out 3,500 tests a day.
While the numbers have so far fallen short of this target, new capacity outside the Department of Health has provided a major boost.
A consortium, including NI’s universities, is expected to deliver some 1,400 additional tests a day.
With pressure on Northern Ireland’s leaders to deliver for healthcare workers, as well as the staff and residents of care homes, BBC News NI crunches the numbers on how many tests are being conducted.
Environment New testing capacity
The new capacity is the result of work by a consortium made up of Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University, the government’s Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and pharmaceutical company Almac.
It is working with the Department for Health and is supported by Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
After a number of delays to ensure the quality of the testing was sufficient, testing has begun at the AFBI facility, near Stormont.
Supported by experts from Queen’s University, staff at the site are expected to process 1,000 tests a day.
As well as the AFBI lab, there will be 400 tests conducted by Ulster University in collaboration with the Western Trust.
Health Minister Robin Swann said the increased capacity would be key in delivering “a robust response to this unprecedented pandemic” – and protecting people’s health.
Environment How many tests is Northern Ireland carrying out?
Earlier in May, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said Northern Ireland could carry out about 2,200 tests a day, and she anticipated this would rise to “just over 3,500” daily tests.
When the Department of Health’s tests are combined with testing carried out by the consortium, the total expected capacity is about 3,600 tests.
The Department of Health’s daily testing number is drawn from two sources:
- Testing at health trust labs
- Tests carried out at national testing centres
The 2,200 figure cited by the deputy first minister is reached by adding the two figures together.
In Northern Ireland, national testing centres have been set up at the SSE Arena in Belfast, City of Derry Rugby Club, and Craigavon MoT Centre.
The department told BBC News NI the number of tests carried out fluctuated daily.
On Friday, Northern Ireland’s number of tests for the past 24 hours was 1,956 – combining 1,405 Health and Social Care Trust lab tests with 551 tests at the national testing centres.
Although the consortium has begun testing, it may take some time before it reaches its targeted 1,400 tests a day.
Once this figure is reached, the consortium is expected to further expand its capacity.
Queen’s University said other collaborations were in development that are expected to be in operation next month.
Environment What about testing in care homes?
A failure to prevent outbreaks in care homes and to test new residents has caused much controversy since the start of the pandemic.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has criticised the failure to create a “ring of steel” around care homes in Northern Ireland.
The Department of Health has stated testing is available to all care home staff and residents, and has committed to testing all residents by the end of next month.
However, almost half of the 664 coronavirus-related deaths recorded by Nisra have been in NI’s care homes.
Appearing before Stormont’s Health Committee on Wednesday, Robin Swann said that 4,950 residents – “almost 40% of our entire care home population” – had been tested for Covid-19.
He said 4,816 care home workers had been tested.
In a statement to BBC News NI, the department confirmed as part of this, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service would be providing mobile testing for staff and residents at care homes.
On Saturday, the Department of Health’s Covid-19 dashboard reported there were 68 care homes dealing with confirmed outbreaks of coronavirus, a further 41 had seen outbreaks but were now clear of the virus.
Environment Are home tests counted?
The UK government has faced criticism over counting home test kits it had sent out, but not received back, towards the daily 100,000 testing target it committed to reaching at the start of May.
Northern Ireland’s Department of Health said it was using these kits as part of the national programme – but only in “small numbers” so far.
“They are added to the daily return as and when an updated position becomes available,” said the department.