15th March 2020

Science Coronavirus: Emergency talks trumped New York trip

Science Coronavirus: Emergency talks trumped New York trip


science Arlene FosterImage copyright

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Arlene Foster said Stormont has established its own “civil contingencies operations room”

Arlene Foster has said tackling coronavirus is her main priority.

The first minister was speaking following the news that she and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill had scaled back their annual St Patrick’s Day trip to the US.

On Tuesday, they cancelled the New York leg of their American visit but they are are still due to go to Washington.

However, Mrs Foster said they decided they needed to stay at home to attend “emergency” meetings on Monday 9 March.

“It is a tremendous opportunity to meet with some of the most powerful voices in the United States and ensure that Northern Ireland is very much at the top of their agenda,” Mrs Foster told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme.

“But our top priority as leaders of the executive is to make sure that we are in a good position in relation to the Covid-19 and the coronavirus and that we have all the planning in place.”

Mrs Foster said she and Mrs O’Neill took the decision over the weekend to limit their trip as “we felt we needed to be here for emergency meetings”.

The first minister said Stormont’s Executive Office has established its own “civil contingencies operations room” and was working to protect essential services in the event that the virus spreads further.

The number of coronavirus cases identified in the UK jumped by 34 in a day, bringing the total to 85,

So far, there has been just one confirmed case of coronavirus in Northern Ireland and two in the Republic of Ireland.

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Media captionThe BBC’s Health team talks you through what the NHS says about protecting yourself from Covid-19

The first minister was asked if officials should consider the implications of coronavirus for this year’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Northern Ireland.

She replied that Stormont would be looking at the plans for “all large-scale events” which are coming up, but that the chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, believes it is still too early to make decisions in relation to those matters.

Dr McBride has also advised the public against wearing masks. He told callers to BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show on Wednesday morning that hand washing is a much more effective deterrent.

“People should not be wearing masks,” he said.

“The most important thing we can do to keep ourselves safe is to practice good respiratory hygiene – catch it, bin it, kill it. Wash your hands regularly, wash your hands before preparing food, before eating, before and after toileting, and every time that you sneeze into a tissue, wash your hands.”

Dr McBride said testing for coronavirus was happening away from general practice and emergency departments in order to prevent the spread.

He added that there was a balance to be struck in terms of the extent of the measures taken to contain the virus.

“We have separate areas and you’ve seen a variety of approaches across our hospitals. It’s about distancing people from the virus as opposed to distancing the most vulnerable from society.”

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Dr Michael McBride said masks were not effective in limiting the spread of coronavirus

The first minster was also asked if Stormont would cover the cost of school trips which have been cancelled due to concerns over coronavirus.

It follows a claim by SDLP MLA Justin McNulty that 12 schools have planned upcoming trips to northern Italy, at a combined cost of £600,000.

The Belfast Telegraph reported that Mr McNulty has called for a blanket ban on school trips to countries affected by the coronavirus.

Mrs Foster did not say the costs would be covered, but instead advised the schools to seek travel guidance from the department, the chief medical officer and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

On Tuesday night, the Irish Foreign Ministry tweeted updated advice advising against non-essential travel to the Lombardy, Veneto, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna regions of Italy.

UK travellers who go against official UK foreign travel advice risk invalidating their insurance policy.

Coronavirus is also affecting Northern Ireland’s tourist industry, with businesses experiencing cancellations and “no-shows”, according to The Northern Ireland Tourism Alliance.

It is holding an “urgent coronavirus summit” for members next Tuesday.

Elsewhere, Belfast City Marathon organisers said on Wednesday that they do not plan on cancelling the event, but the board of directors “are working on measures to reduce any risk whilst ensuring a smooth and successful delivery of the event to our participants”.

Meanwhile, the Sinn Féin President, Mary-Lou McDonald, has confirmed that her children are in self-isolation after a male student at their Dublin school contracted coronavirus.

She told the BBC on Wednesday: “Obviously it’s a very worrying time for all of the families affected and for the staff at the school.

“All of us now are following the guidance from the Chief Medical Officer and that means quarantine for the children for 14 days and no visits to the house. It’s quite strict, and it’s a challenge but it’s necessary.”

Science What do I need to know about the coronavirus?


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