Picture of the Health Minister, Robin Swann, beside his quote about the health service

Those were the words of Health Minister Robin Swann as he launched a new COVID-19 Surge Planning Strategic Framework for Northern Ireland.

The Minister announced the new Framework in a statement to the Assembly. Individual localised surge plans have also been published today by each Trust.

Emphasising that each one of us has a role to play in protecting the health service, Mr Swann told the Assembly:

“I urge everyone across the community to go that extra mile this winter by following the guidance on infection prevention and not to let our guard slip.”

The Minister warned MLAs that the health and social care system is facing “a huge and daunting challenge” in what is expected to be the most challenging period in its history.“We must as a system try to rebuild services; manage the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; embed innovation and transformation; address winter pressures and plan for the future – all at the same time.“We demonstrated during the first COVID-19 wave – and despite the limited time to prepare – that we are up to the challenge. It is due to the dedication of all our health and social care staff that anyone who has contracted this terrible virus has had access to the best possible care. I am determined that this will continue to be the case.”

The Minister underlined his commitment to rebuild services affected by the first phase of the pandemic. A policy statement setting out important plans for rebuilding and stabilising cancer services will be published tomorrow.

Huge efforts underway

Mr Swann said “huge efforts” are underway on rebuilding health and social care services but these are likely to be impacted by the recent “deeply concerning” rise in COVID-19 cases.

Plans to publish the next phase of Trust rebuilding plans this week have been paused in light of this sharp increase.

The Minister said that “given the perilous and developing situation we now find ourselves in” there was no choice but to hold back the publication.

“However let me reassure Members - just because the publication of the plans may be paused, that does not for one moment suggest the efforts of our clinicians to support patients have been paused. Even with the prevailing COVID situation I expect that the rebuilding effort will of course continue, as far as that is possible.”

Surge Planning Framework

The new Surge Planning Framework highlights important learning from earlier months in the pandemic; sets out the approach to virus surveillance and modelling; reviews actions to minimise COVID-19 transmission and impact; summarises key regional initiatives to organise health and social care services to facilitate effective service delivery; highlights actions around the key issues of workforce, medicines and testing; and confirms a number of principles for Trusts to follow in their individual surge plans. 

Key initiatives detailed in the Framework include:

  • the establishment of a regional cancer reset cell to oversee the resumption of screening, diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients in clinically safe environments as quickly as possible, and to protect these services as much as possible in the event of further potential surges of COVID-19; 
  • action to capture learning in relation to care homes to mitigate future transmission of the virus in those setting.
  • establishing dedicated centres for day case and orthopaedic procedures.
  • the continued availability of the critical care capacity at NI’s first Nightingale facility at Belfast City Hospital’s Tower Block. The additional ICU capacity at the City Hospital’s Nightingale facility will only be needed in the event of an extreme surge in demand for intensive care. The Tower Block will remain a protected site for cancer and other specialist surgery for as long possible.
  • the additional step down capacity at NI’s second Nightingale facility at Whiteabbey hospital.

In his statement to the Assembly, the Minister also paid tribute to the commitment and contribution of staff:

“Our nurses, doctors, paramedics, other allied health professionals, pharmacists, care workers, primary care, other front line health and social care workers and carers have bravely and tirelessly put themselves at risk to save the lives of others.“Amongst them were also those who volunteered to return to work or temporarily leave training to provide much help and support.  I cannot thank our workers enough for that.  I know that I can rely upon continued commitment from all staff, as we begin the task of managing future COVID-19 waves.“Having said that, I appreciate that the efforts to date have taken their toll.  We must put staff welfare, along with patient safety, at the heart of our efforts to manage services.”