Coronavirus: morning update

Range of new initiatives announced by NI Executive ministers

Coronavirus: morning update

Health Minister Robin Swann.

By Damian Mullan


By Damian Mullan


NORTHERN Ireland Executive ministers and their officials have over the past 24 hours been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.

Health Minister Robin Swann announced a series of measures to support community pharmacies and intensive care training in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A new £13.25 million funding package will be available to community pharmacies up to March 2021, in addition to a recurrent £112.4 million in funding for 2020/21 and a £7.5 million investment in maintaining essential medicines during the initial stages of the Coronavirus emergency.

The funding package came about after a commission agreement was reached by the Department of Health, Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland (CPNI) and the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB). 

During a visit to McKay’s Pharmacy in Belfast, Minister Swann said: “I am very pleased to be able to announce this investment in community pharmacy, which has responded promptly and professionally to the Covid-19 emergency response. I fully understand the historical challenges faced by the sector.

"This agreement provides a firm foundation that will enable community pharmacy to play a full part in the future of the HSC. This is the first time that an agreement on the commissioning and funding of community pharmacy has been reached in Northern Ireland and I recognise all the hard work that has brought us here today.

"I welcome the new approach to collaborative working which I believe will be beneficial for the HSC, pharmacies, and all those who use their services.”

The funding will ensure that, as well as the core dispensing service provided by all pharmacies, community pharmacies will provide additional services from July 2020 to meet the needs of patients during the pandemic period. 

This will mean: 

* An emergency supply service, started in phase one of the pandemic, will continue.
* Services for smoking cessation and opiate substitution therapy, suspended during the initial phases of the emergency response, will re-commence.
* An enhanced on-call palliative care service will be provided and a new service developed for care homes.
* A ‘Pharmacy First’ service will provide a consultation with a pharmacist for access to advice and treatment for common conditions, avoiding the need for the public to attend GP/OOH/ED services.
* Pharmacies will provide targeted advice and signposting for mental and physical health promotion.
* A medicines delivery services will be developed for vulnerable groups.

The Minister also announced the commissioning of four additional training places in the Intensive Care medical specialty training programme, commencing in September 2020.

With intensive care specialty in great demand during the recent Coronavirus health crisis, he said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to ensure that the critical care service has enough consultant staff into the future.

"It will be necessary to cope with potential future increases in demand including those associated with demography, service developments and the ongoing risk of further surges in respiratory virus-related illness such as Covid-19.

"Securing the four additional training places will help address these challenges, and will ensure that we keep up with the rest of the UK, who also recently agreed to fund additional Intensive Care training places in light of the impact of Covid-19.”

Intensive Care Medicine is a relatively new specialty, with a complex training structure involving experience in intensive care, anaesthetics, medicine (especially respiratory medicine and renal medicine). Clinical placements are also undertaken in paediatric ICU and cardiac intensive care.

The four additional trainees will enter the programme in September 2020 and will be expected to begin to make a major contribution to service delivery within six months of joining.

Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín announced a major £4 million lifeline for the arts to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown.

The additional funding, which was secured during the Executive’s June Monitoring round, will be available to musicians, performers and cultural workers, arts venues and museums as they rebuild.

It is part of an overall package for the Department for Communities which allocated almost £4 million for the Housing Executive to tackle homelessness, £4.5 million for the Community Support Fund and £2 million for the sports sector.

During a visit to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, Minister Ní Chuilín observed: “This pandemic has exposed the financial vulnerability of our arts and cultural organisations, many of whom are household names. As an immediate next step, I intend to engage directly with organisations to agree the detail of how the funds might best be put to swift use.

"The huge part the arts play in all our lives has come into sharp focus through the closure of theatres, concert halls and other venues during this terrible pandemic and the cancellation of so many shows and arts programmes. And when arts and culture organisations suffer so, too, does our economy.  These organisations employ thousands of staff directly and indirectly, they attract tourists and help support our hospitality industry.”

The Minister said in the coming weeks she intended to widen the conversation about the future of the creative sector and was urging performers, audiences, businesses and political parties to participate.

With £4.5 million going to the Covid Community Support Fund, she said it was vital the provision of that funding to councils continued so they could support the ongoing efforts of grassroots community groups to help vulnerable and isolated people in their areas, as well as providing access to food.

The £4 million secured for tackling homelessness will enable the transition to a more permanent solution for those currently accommodated in B&Bs and hotels, will provide support for those who have started to engage with homelessness services and will help the Housing Executive make preparations to cope with a second peak of infections.

On the £2 million secured for the sports sector, the Minister added:  “To date £1.25 million has been committed to the Sports Hardship Fund which is assisting hundreds of clubs as they deal with the immediate impact the crisis has had on them. 

"Securing this additional £2 million demonstrates my commitment to ensuing the sustainability of sports governing bodies, clubs and sporting organisations at every level, from grassroots to those who compete at an international level, and to help the sector overcome some of the financial challenges ahead. 

"This funding will help ensure that people and communities can get back to enjoying their sport safely as the restrictions on the sector gradually ease.”

Education Minister Peter Weir welcomed the £12 million allocation in the monitoring round for the summer food scheme for those qualifying for free school meals during lockdown and an additional £10.5 million for childcare.

The summer food scheme will result in 57,000 families with responsibility for 102,000 children receiving payments of £13.50 per child per week during July and August.

Minister Weir said: “The issue of holiday hunger is a real concern to myself and Executive colleagues. These payments will help ensure that those children most in need do not go hungry during the summer months. I am also pleased to announce the Education Authority’s ‘Eat Well Live Well’ programme will be extended over July and August to provide for up to 5,000 young people. The programme has been running for a number of months and is currently providing healthy breakfasts and lunches to over 3,000 vulnerable young people.”

With around £12 million going to an autumn learning support programme and summer activities, the Minister said the funding for the ‘Engage’ programme for primary and post-primary pupils would address lost learning during lockdown, particularly among those children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Minister said: “The details have still to be worked out but it is likely to include support for literacy and numeracy, nurture and emotional health and well-being. In addition, my Department will provide some funding to support those primary schools which are able to run summer schools, on a voluntary basis, with a focus on supporting children with their learning.

"Finally, I also intend to help schools purchase online resources which may help address the needs of pupils entering P7 as they return to school.”

With £10.5million earmarked for childcare services, the Minister also signalled a Childcare Recovery Scheme will be launched in July.

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