All NI health and social care workers to receive £500 ‘thank-you’ payment - NI people told ‘do not book a summer holiday’ by top government minister - Allowing Primary Seven pupils to repeat year to be explored - Weekly Covid-19 testing for special schools

Health Minister Robin Swann has announced every health and social care worker in Northern Ireland will receive a special one-off ‘thank you’ payment of £500 for their “heroic work” throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wednesday, 27th January 2021, 6:05 pm

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Health Minister Robin Swann, Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride and Patricia Donnelly, Head of the Covid-19 Vaccine Programme during a Covid-19 update press conference in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast.

LIVE BLOG: Covid-19 in Northern Ireland - Vaccination acceleration announced for Northern Ireland

Last updated: Wednesday, 27 January, 2021, 17:32

  • Acceleration of NI vaccination scheme announced
  • All NI health workers to receive special one-off ‘thank-you’ payment of £500
  • NI and GB told not to book summer holiday yet because of Covid-19
  • 16 additional deaths and 527 new infections in last 24 hours

Vaccination acceleration announced for Northern Ireland

Dr Patricia Donnelly, the head of Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, has announced an acceleration of the rollout.

The region received a further delivery of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on Tuesday, and another delivery is expected next week.

Dr Donnelly said those will cover the 75-plus age group and start provision to the over-70 population.

She said Thursday will see the start of a “twin-track approach”, as the seven regional vaccination centres start receiving members of the public.

GPs will focus on the 70-and-over age group, while the vaccination centres will offer appointments to 65-to-69-year-olds.

Covid-19 vaccination scheme Northern Ireland update

Health Minister Robin Swann has announced every health and social care worker in Northern Ireland will receive a special one-off ‘thank you’ payment of £500 for their “heroic work” throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Subject to Department of Finance approval, it will be paid to all health and social care workers including doctors, nurses, care home workers, domiciliary care workers, administrative staff and estates teams.

Mr Swann also announced a flat rate, one-off special recognition payment of £2,000 for all qualifying students that have been on clinical placement between October 1 2020 to March 31 2021.

The qualifying courses are the nursing and midwifery, AHP, social work and physician associate pre-registration programmes commissioned from Queen’s University Belfast and the Ulster University by Stormont’s health department.

A one-off award is also set to be made to carers, but Mr Swann said more work is to be done on this before further detail can be announced.

NI and GB told not to book summer holiday yet because of Covid-19

Crowds gather at the beach and along the footpath Helen’s Bay in Co. Down last summer.

A top government minister has told people living in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain not to book a summer holiday at the moment because of Covid-19.

Speaking on both BBC News and Sky News, the vaccine minister, Nadhim Zahawi, was asked if it was too soon for the public to book holidays.

“Absolutely,” he responded. “I think it's far too early.

“There's still 37,000 people in hospital with Covid at the moment. 

"It’s far too early for us to even speculate about the summer.”

Northern Ireland is currently in the fifth week of what may turn out to be a, at the very least, 10 week long lockdown.

16 additional Covid deaths and 527 new infections in last 24 hours

A further 16 people have died after testing positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Health also confirmed another 527 positive cases of the virus on Wednesday.

There are 775 patients with Covid-19 in hospital including 68 in ICU.

MLAs to explore viability of offering P7 pupils the chance to repeat

The Stormont Health Committee has agreed to write to the Department of Education (DE) to ask if it has explored the possibility of offering primary seven pupils the chance to repeat this academic year because of the way in which they have been negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Education Committee Chair, Chris Lyttle, MLA and deputy Chair, Karen Mullan, MLA, both said they had been contacted by parents and schools asking if there will be a system put in place to offer those who want to, the chance to repeat this academic year.

“I don’t know if this is the same for other members but the number of people contacting me about the chance of repeating the year is significant,” said Chris Lyttle.

Alliance Party MLA, Mr. Lyttle did concede that the logistical challenges stemming from such a decision would be significant.

“I am experiencing the same in my constituency,” said Karen Mullan.

The issue was discussed by the committee at a virtual meeting on Wednesday morning.

NI approach to pandemic should be less inward-looking, virologist says

Northern Ireland’s approach to the pandemic should be more global and less inward-looking, one of the country’s leading virologists has said - writes Michael McHugh, PA.

The race between different countries to deliver vaccines needs to recognise that people will have to travel and trade together, Dr Lindsay Broadbent added.

Transport of goods and citizens between Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and the Irish Republic means infection rates cannot be compared to isolated New Zealand, the Queen’s University Belfast academic added.

She said: “We have to be realistic that this virus is worldwide, it has spread worldwide, you cannot just have an inward-looking approach to this pandemic.

“Countries in general have to look more globally, not just to their own borders but across the world if we want to be able to travel internationally again safely, if we want it to be safer for transport and hauliers.

“We need to make sure that this pandemic is targeted on a globalised basis.”

Dr Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, has previously expressed concern about Northern Ireland’s contact tracing system and suggested joint testing with the Republic would track outbreaks more effectively.

He has claimed disease among livestock would prompt much more seamless co-operation between administrations north and south of the border.

Reservations over data sharing have stymied the tracking of arrivals from abroad through Dublin airport into Northern Ireland to check they are self-isolating.

Ireland has imposed controls on travel from the UK while Northern Ireland has not.

Lockdowns have proceeded at different paces and on different timetables.

Politicians on both sides of the Irish border have at different points during the pandemic raised concern over higher infection rates or slower official responses in parts of the neighbouring jurisdiction.

Northern Ireland’s coalition Government has suffered internal strains over management of the pandemic.

Sinn Fein and the DUP harboured major differences last year over the pace of reopening the economy, shutting schools and holding exams.

A Belfast republican funeral with hundreds of onlookers and attended by Sinn Fein leaders halted joint press conferences between Stormont leaders Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill last summer.

Ireland’s new administration has also been consumed by the emergency and lost a minister after he attended a golf society dinner last summer despite restrictions on gathering.

Ministers have also faced flak from some quarters after going against professional public health advice on intensifying movement restrictions.

At the weekend, Taoiseach Micheal Martin prompted unionist ire after suggesting Northern Ireland was not testing enough for the UK variant of Covid-19, which has become the dominant strain in the south.

Ms Broadbent, a research fellow at Queen’s school of medicine, said: “One benefit of Northern Ireland being associated with the UK is that there has been access to some very good protocols such as UK-wide genomic surveying work, which helped identify the UK variant and South African variant.

“Equally, there are a lot of good things coming from the communication between Northern Ireland and the south of Ireland.”

She said protocols could have been put in place to minimise the possibility of new variants entering the island.

“If there was screening at airports and ports, both north and south, you would have been able to test people before they left their country of origin and quarantine on arrival in Northern Ireland or Ireland, with possibly a second test before quarantine was over to make sure that they were not positive.

“That is a big ask and at this stage would be difficult to implement.”

Weekly Covid-19 testing to start in Northern Ireland special schools

Weekly Covid-19 testing is to be introduced for staff and pupils at special schools in Northern Ireland next month - writes Rebecca Black, PA.

A new technology called LAMP, a saliva-based test, is expected to be easier than swab testing for children.

Special schools have remained open during lockdown, while mainstream schools have closed in the effort to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Education Minister Peter Weir said he has heard calls for additional measures to support special school staff and students.

“The nature of special schools means that social distancing is difficult and it is important that staff are given every support possible to help them continue their vital and valuable work,” he said.

“Access to this testing programme will help provide additional reassurance to teaching staff, pupils and parents. I would encourage all staff and pupils to take the tests.”

Health Minister Robin Swann described the testing method as a “significant development” in the effort against Covid-19.

“The introduction of this new testing intervention for staff and pupils in special schools will allow positive cases to be identified early so that they and their contacts can isolate, helping to prevent further transmission of Covid-19 within these school settings,” he said.

“New testing interventions (NTIs) are progressing in a range of educational settings in Northern Ireland, including schools and universities, with the PHA (Public Health Agency) playing an important role in their planning and operational delivery.

“Testing is one element in our road map out of this pandemic and I hope everyone avails of the opportunity to be tested, to keep themselves and those they care for safe.”

‘I am ready to go to town over the 16,000 pupils who have been let down’ - Robbie Butler MLA

Robbie Butler, MLA.

UUP MLA and Stormont Education Committee member, Robbie Butler, has said he is “ready to go to town” on how the Department of Education and Education Minister, Peter Weir, have managed the transfer of primary seven pupils to grammar schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Mr. Butler made the comment at the beginning of a meeting of the committee on Wednesday morning.

The meeting comes one day after the Education Minister, Peter Weir, answered questions from MLAs in the Assembly on Tuesday.

One of the questions put to Minister Weir on Tuesday concerned how some grammar schools would select pupils after the decision to cancel the post-primary transfer test because of Covid-19.

Minister Weir repeated his position that he is not responsible for the post primary transfer test and could not intervene.

On Wednesday morning, Mr. Butler expressed concern about primary six pupils who will be due to sit the post-primary transfer test in November 2021.

"I am concerned about the current primary six cohort who will be looking to sit the test or something similar in November 2021.

"Whilst the response might be accurate for this cohort a lack of planning and a failure to have contingincies and mitigations in place will not be acceptable - I will be ready to go to down on this.

"I am prepared to go to town on what has happened to the 16,000 primary seven pupils at the moment who are being let down, the single parent families who are being discriminated against  - I can’t overstate enough how much of a debacle I consider this to be.

“I can’t say their answer is wrong but again it’s disappointing and they could have at least alluded to having a team in place and purposed to ensure that this does not happen again.”

Education Committee Chair and Alliance Party MLA, Chris Lyttle, echoed the comments made by Mr. Butler.

"I am on the record saying loudly and clearly that the Education Minister has abdicated responsibility to thousands of children across Northern Ireland.

"It’s not acceptable and we are seeing the consequence of a lack of a contingency plan.

“People have made a point to me that the applications to these schools using wide and varied criteria will not be known until June.”

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