Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride: Unemployment will cost lives in medium term but NHS is at risk of being overwhelmed by Coronavirus now

The Chief Medical Officer has acknowledged that poverty and unemployment will cost lives in the medium to long term but that difficult choices have to be made to stop the NHS being overwhelmed now.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride during the daily media broadcast at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, in Belfast.Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride during the daily media broadcast at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, in Belfast.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride during the daily media broadcast at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, in Belfast.

In today’s press conference with Health Minister Robin Swan, Chief Scientific Officer Ian Young and Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride expanded on the reason for new restrictions across NI.

Journalist Nigel Gould said that the World Health Organisation has now advised that the world needs to find “better ways of living with the virus” rather than “aggressive lockdown”.

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Noting the significant impact this will have on business, he asked what will happen if the latest measures don’t work?

Dr McBride responded: “There are no easy solutions or simple answers to this, only a series of hard and very difficult choices, all of which have bad outcomes in terms of health, impact on health services, but also wider impacts on society and wider impacts on the economy.”

However he argued that “what is good for our health is good for the economy, and what is good for the economy is good for our health”.

”I have said many times standing here that socioeconomic deprivation, unemployment, poverty shortens and costs lives. And that is why these decisions made by the Executive are so very difficult because the Executive is seeking to balance all of those factors.

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”The immediate pressures [are] on the health service - to stop it and those working in it being overwhelmed - and the medium and longer term consequences [are] on wider society and on our mental health and wellbeing, on those people who have been shielding in the past and on the wider economy.”

He added that “a good job is good for our health” and that there are currently “significant and fundamental risks in terms of young people and their long term educational attainment and life opportunities”.

Therefore, as chief medical officer he urged all doctors to be “very mindful of the fact that poverty kills people”. 

He added: “It always has, it always will do and it is those difficult decisions the Executive has had to struggle with”.

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Mr Swann said that he was expanding the remit of the reopened Nightingale hospital from Belfast to all of NI to cope with rising cases from across all of NI.

Prof Young said that the surge in testing could not account for the rise in confirmed cases, as testing had increased by 25% while cases had increased by over 50% in the same period.

He said that the guidance may seem complex, the key message is: “If you think you are doing something that carries risk because you are mixing with other people and you don’t need to do it, then don’t”.

Dr McBride said the new restrictions would allow time to “further embed the increases in testing [with] the new testing technology and to maximise the benefit of new digital innovations in our contact tracing service that complement the Stop Covid NI App”.

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A key message given repeatedly by the men was that the authorities cannot combat the virus alone, but only people taking personal responsibility for adhering to hygiene and social distancing rules would work.

Asked if hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed soon, Mr Swann said “definitely not” adding that improved treatments means better survival rates for those admitted to hospital and ICU. However Dr McBride added that we “will see an increase” in admissions to ICU and deaths.

Asked if we are not entering an endless cycle of lockdowns and spikes, Mr Swann said that people needed to go back to doing what they did earlier in the year to flatten the first surge.

The health chiefs were quizzed intensely on why they did not release the ‘scientific evidence’ for their advice, but they repeatedly advised that most of what they were using was published on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) website, or in published peer reviewed journals.

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Asked what was next if the ‘circuit breaker’ doesn’t work, Mr Swann replied: “A better question is - what can you do to make it work?”

He said that those ignoring safety guidance needed to stop and think about the possibility of passing the virus on to someone they loved.Questions were raised about the rationale for especially stringent restrictions on the hospitality sector. Prof Young said the majority of Covid clusters were now being found outside houses; 30% of presymptomatic carriers have been in hospitality settings but only 5% in retail settings, he said, and hospitality is a higher risk than retail because people linger longer and interact more closely with other people there.

Mr Swann said the biggest risk from schools was not in the building itself, but during pick-up at the gates, transport to and from school, extra curricular activities and associated socialising. Dr McBride said schools account for 4.5% of cases.

Prof Young said adults also act differently when “freed from childcare” and will interact more with other adults as a result. Opening schools added 0.2 onto the ‘R’ transmission number, he added.

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