Coronavirus: Enforced social distancing ‘likely to come soon’


Robin Swann

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Robin Swann said the measures were possible within 36 hours

Enforced social distancing is likely to be introduced soon, Northern Ireland’s health minister has said.

Robin Swann told the BBC he expected it would be discussed at the government’s Cobra committee meeting later today.

He added it was likely to include the closure of “non-essential shops” in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Later, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was reduced to tears in the assembly chamber while taking questions about efforts to tackle the disease.

In other developments on Monday:

  • Northern Ireland’s health service is to access all hospital beds across the private sector
  • The Mater was designated as Belfast’s coronavirus hospital
  • Letters are being sent this week to 40,000 people in Northern Ireland most at risk telling them to stay at home
  • Most schools opened on a limited basis for children of key workers
  • Emergency legislation that would grant powers aimed at tackling the pandemic will be debated by MPs later

Speaking on Radio Ulster, Mr Swann said people were “not seriously weighing up the seriousness of the situation we are currently in”.

When asked if tougher measures could come into effect within the next 36 hours, Mr Swann said: “We could be moving at that speed, because what we are seeing across the UK and the rest of Europe is that Covid-19 is moving at that speed.

“I think we if we move quickly enough to enforce the social isolation that we need to see in NI, across the UK and across these islands, we have a chance of slowing down the infection rate.”

On Monday 20 new cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Northern Ireland, bringing the total to 148. Two people have died.


Over the weekend photos circulated on social media showing crowds of people in popular north coast tourist destinations Portrush and Portstewart in Country Antrim, as well as beaches in County Donegal, near Newcastle in County Down and at Nutts Corner market.

Mr Swann said people who failed to self isolate were selfish, adding: “What we saw in Northern Ireland was irresponsible”.

Justice Minister Naomi Long said people would face fines up to £100,000 if they did not comply with the government’s new measures.

The fines are included in the emergency coronavirus bill going through Westminster, which will apply to all of the UK.

Emotional speech

At Stormont, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was reduced to tears in the assembly chamber while taking questions from members about efforts to tackle coronavirus.

She was answering a question from TUV leader Jim Allister about a constituent who has been told her chemotherapy will stop due to service pressures.

Ms O’Neill began by responding: “What do you say – what can you say to that person? These are the challenges which we’re going to have to deal with,” before beginning to get upset.

The chamber paused temporarily, before she went onto finish her response.

“There aren’t any good answers to those kinds of questions.”

Mater Hospital

It has also been confirmed that the Mater will take on the role of Belfast’s coronavirus hospital from midday on Tuesday, with all respiratory admissions within the trust area diverted to it.

Its emergency department will close to walk-in admissions from 8am.

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The Mater Hospital in north Belfast

Experienced medical staff will be redeployed from other areas in the trust to support the anticipated higher level of activity.

All other ambulance categories will be diverted to to the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Patients who are seeking medical treatment for urgent and non-respiratory problems are advised to attend the ED at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital.

Extra body storage

Earlier, assembly members at Stormont were told officials were actively trying to increase the capacity to store bodies in Northern Ireland to cope with any upsurge in coronavirus deaths.

They heard that up to 280 bodies can be stored until they can be buried or cremated.

The justice committee also heard how some prisoners in Northern Ireland could be released early under new emergency legislation.

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The most dangerous prisoners will remain in jail

But officials told members only those prisoners who would have previously qualified for early release will be eligible to be freed.

Prisoners convicted of terrorist offences, sex offences or domestic violence will not qualify for release under the emergency legislation which is expected to pass through Westminster this week.

Meanwhile assembly members were told there were no plans to call in military support for the police.


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