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Minister Appeals to Public on Health Service Pressures

Health Minister Robin Swann has urged the public to support health and social care staff as they continue to work through unprecedented pressures.

The Minister said hospital Emergency Departments remain under severe strain, reflecting pressures right across the Health and Social Care system.

He said the system as a whole is struggling to cope with current levels of demand for care – and also expressed concern at reports of aggressive and abusive behaviour towards staff.

Mr Swann pointed out that the health service has been through the most difficult period in its history and remains under extreme stress.

The public can help by using services appropriately and doing all they can to stay well over the summer. A summer “Stay Well” campaign has been launched to highlight actions we can all take. Getting vaccinated and doing all we can to stop Covid spreading will provide vital support.

The Health Minister said: “The current level of pressure is at least on a par with what is normally experienced in winter. There are a number of interlinked factors behind this situation.

“Our health and social care system was fragile before the pandemic and the last 18 months have inflicted untold damage. The truth is that the system as a whole is struggling to cope with current levels of demand for care. This is severely impacting Emergency Departments, GP services, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and other areas.

“It is leading in many cases to long and distressing waiting times for patients. That is a deeply regrettable state of affairs. I would appeal to the public to support and work with staff as they deal with this unprecedented and deeply frustrating situation.

“I am deeply concerned at reports of aggressive and abusive behaviour towards some staff. Staff understand the frustrations of the public. Indeed, they share them. So do I. Staff have not created the current situation, nor can they flick a switch and fix them. Despite the trauma and exhaustion caused by Covid, staff are working relentlessly to treat the sickest people quickest. Please respect them and help them do their jobs in these extremely difficult conditions.”

The Minister added: “Some of the causes of the current situation in our health service have been building up for years. I am determined to address these. In recent weeks, I have published roadmaps for tackling our waiting list crisis and rebuilding cancer services, and a 10-year Mental Health Strategy. I continue to make the case for sustained and substantial investment in health and I believe this has strong support around the Executive table.”

Factors behind the current health and social care pressures include:

  • limits on capacity due to COVID-19 infection prevention measures, including restricted space in hospitals and reductions in already stretched bed capacity;
  • ongoing Covid-related care for patients, plus the significant workload delivering the NI vaccination programme;
  • people coming forward for medical care for conditions that developed during lockdown;
  • people presenting with mental health conditions that developed during lockdown;
  • people who are on waiting lists seeking GP or hospital care for conditions that have deteriorated;
  • limits on capacity in intermediate/social/domiciliary care, impacting on hospital discharges;

The Health and Social Care (HSC) system together with GPs, pharmacists and dentists are working to ensure that the Northern Ireland public can access important health and care services this summer.

The summer ‘Stay Well’ campaign will encourage the public to choose services appropriately to help ease current challenges. As part of the campaign, people are being encouraged to look after themselves and others. This includes simple steps like ordering repeat prescriptions well in advance of any public holidays. This can help reduce pressures on GP and GP out of hours services.

If you feel unwell, there are a range of healthcare services available to help you.  These range from self-care/pharmacy for minor ailments; GP services; Minor Injury Units and Emergency Services. Self-care is the best choice to treat minor illnesses, ailments and injuries. A range of common illnesses such as sunburn, hay-fever, aches and pains, coughs, colds, upset stomachs and sore throats can be treated with over the counter medicines and plenty of rest.  Remember, whether treated or not, most of these will get better.

To be clear, if your case is an emergency, then you should go to a hospital Emergency Department without delay.

COVID-19 continues to bring significant pressures to Northern Ireland’s health and social care system. That’s why we must continue to do all we can to stop the virus spreading. By getting fully vaccinated, with both doses of your vaccine, you will be playing an important part in supporting our health service. Continuing to follow public health advice on preventing Covid infection is also vital.

Anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms should book a PCR Covid test immediately. PCRs – the most accurate tests – are available at testing sites across Northern Ireland and can be booked at:

If your PCR test is positive, you need to self-isolate and provide all the information and assistance you can to the Contact Tracing Service. That helps trace possible contacts and contains virus spread.


Applications for Spend Local Pre-Paid Card will Open from 27th September

Announcing the next phase of the High Street Scheme, Economy Minister Gordon Lyons with Milana Surova of Memento florists on the Ormeau Road, Belfast.

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons announced a number of important dates in the rollout of the High Street Scheme (HSS).

On a visit to Belfast’s Ormeau Road – which was recently announced as Retail NI’s High Street of the Year – the Minister announced that the online portal which will enable anyone aged over 18 and over to apply for the £100 Spend Local pre-paid cards – will be open from 27th September until 25th October.

He also announced a number of other key dates. They are:

  • Week commencing 4th October – First tranche of cards will issue to those who have successfully applied for the Spend Local pre-paid card.
  • 11th October – Telephone service will open to support applications from people not able to access or use the online portal.
  • 25th October – High Street Scheme online portal and telephone services will close.
  • 25th October – the last qualifying date for those turning 18 to be eligible to apply for a Spend Local card.
  • 30th November – High Street Scheme closes and the Spend Local pre-paid cards will cease to be valid.

The Minister said: “Now is the time to get ready to Spend Local. I am delighted to announce that the online portal will open to receive applications in just under two weeks with the first tranche of Spend Local pre-paid cards to issue the week beginning 4th of October.

“The objective of the £145million High Street Scheme is to boost local businesses following the drop in footfall brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. By giving everyone aged 18 and over in Northern Ireland a pre-paid card worth £100 to spend in local high businesses, we will encourage many more customers back through the doors of local retail, hospitality and services.

“I would encourage everyone who is over 18 by 25th October this year, to apply for their card between 27th September and October 25th. We expect demand to be high so please be patient if the online portal is busy just after it opens. It is important to remember that everyone will have at least four weeks to spend their card.

“By applying, receiving and ultimately spending your Spend Local card in local businesses such as shops, hospitality and other services before November 30, you will be doing your bit to support your local businesses.”

The Minister was joined by Chris O’Reilly, Chair of Ormeau Business Association, Simon Hamilton of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, Glyn Roberts of Retail NI and local traders.

Welcoming the scheme, Mr O’Reilly said: “We would like to welcome the Minister to the Ormeau Road – the High Street of the Year. Like many other local high streets across our towns and cities, the Ormeau Road is home to a diverse range of shops, restaurants and pubs which have felt the impact of the pandemic through a reduced number of customers coming through our doors. The High Street Scheme will deliver just the boost we need right now. I am sure I speak for many traders across Northern Ireland when I say we are looking forward to seeing customers using their Spend Local cards.”  

Mr Hamilton said: “Belfast Chamber is delighted to support the launch of the Department for the Economy’s Spend Local card. It has been an immensely challenging period for retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism businesses and this £100 Spend Local card will give people the opportunity to actively help those businesses. It is also a great way to support everyone who works in our local shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and other services. This scheme will provide a much needed and very timely boost to those hard-hit sectors and make a massive difference to businesses as we emerge from the pandemic and edge towards recovery.”

Announcing the next phase of the High Street Scheme, Economy Minister Gordon Lyons joins Michael Goggin of Michel’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetables on the Ormeau Road, Belfast.

Mr Roberts said: “Retail NI has been a strong advocate for the High Street Scheme as a stimulant to support economic recovery. This £100 pre-paid Spend Local Card will be a much needed welcome spending boost for many retailers and our High Streets as whole. Our sector has suffered significantly during the pandemic and the High Street Scheme has come at the right time. I encourage consumers to spend this card with local retailers to boost our economy.”

From 27th of September to 25th of October applicants will be asked to apply through NI Direct.  For verification purposes in order to reduce the risk of fraud and error, each applicant will be asked to provide:

  • name;
  • address;
  • age;
  • gender;
  • disability status;
  • national insurance number;
  • email address; and
  • telephone number. 

Applicants will also have the option of including a driving licence number to enable verification. Once the applicant has completed the registration process their information will be checked against a number of government databases to verify their identity.

The portal is expected to be extremely busy in the days after it opens. Applicants are reminded that the online portal will be open for four weeks and everyone will have a minimum of four weeks to spend their card.

Applicants should receive their Spend Local card within 7-10 days of making their application. When an applicant receives their card, they will need to verify the card through a computer-operated phone system or text message and make the first payment using a pin, before they can start to use it for contactless payments.

The cards can be used in all participating businesses in Northern Ireland. They cannot be used online or for gambling or some financial and legal services.

The telephone support service will open on 11th October. The later opening of the telephone service has been implemented to encourage more people to apply online when the portal opens on 27th September and avoid using the phone line leaving it available for those who do not have access to, or are not able to use, the internet.

A public information campaign across television, radio, press and social media will begin on 16th September to keep applicants up-to-date with the scheme

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Young People Aged 12 to 15 to be Offered Covid-19 Vaccine

People aged 12-15 in Northern Ireland will be offered a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine shortly.

This move follows the unanimous advice to ministers from the four UK Chief Medical Officers.

Health Minister Robin Swann said: “I have carefully considered the advice provided by the four UK Chief Medical Officers and have accepted their recommendation to expand the vaccination programme to all those aged 12-15. This move will help protect young people from catching COVID-19 and is expected to prevent disruption in schools by reducing transmission.”

In line with the recommendation of the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the government sought the views of the four UK CMOs on the wider issues that are relevant to the health of children.  All those aged 12 to 15 in Northern Ireland will now be offered one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and parental consent will be sought prior to vaccination. For those who are part of an ‘at risk’ group, they will receive two doses, eight weeks apart, in line with JCVI advice.

The government has accepted the advice of the four UK CMOs and the HSC is preparing to deliver the programme which is expected to be a schools-based vaccination programme, which is the successful model used for vaccinations including for HPV and the annual flu programme. They will be supported by GPs where necessary. Consent forms for vaccination will begin to be distributed via schools shortly.

Most school-aged children aged 12 to 15 are expected to will primarily receive their COVID-19 vaccination in their school with alternative provision for those who are home schooled or in secure services.

The Minister concluded: “I thank the UK Chief Medical Officers for their expert advice. Our healthcare system stands ready to extend the vaccination programme to this group with the same dedication and urgency that they have delivered all other parts of the vaccination programme.”

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