Michelle O'Neill rejects comparison between Bobby Storey funeral and hundreds of Rangers fans celebrating on Shankill Road - Fourth wave of Covid-19 deaths and infections inevitable says Professor Chris Whitty

Deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill has rejected the notion that hundreds of Rangers supporters allegedly breaking Covid-19 restrictions on the Shankill Road at the weekend can be compared to what happened at the funeral of Bobby Storey in June.

Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 5:24 pm
Updated Tuesday, 9th March 2021, 7:23 pm

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Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Health Minister, Robin Swann, pictured during a visit to the Ulster Hospital vaccination centre - First Minister Arlene Foster also visited the centre.

LIVE BLOG: Coronavirus NI - O’Neill rejects link between Storey funeral scenes and Rangers title crowds

Last updated: Tuesday, 09 March, 2021, 17:09

O’Neill rejects link between Storey funeral scenes and Rangers title crowds

Michelle O’Neill has rejected any suggestion of a link between alleged Covid-19 breaches at Rangers fans’ title celebrations and crowds that gathered for republican funerals during the pandemic - write David Young and Rebecca Black, PA.

Police are investigating events on Belfast’s Shankill Road on Sunday as crowds of Rangers supporters congregated to mark their team’s Scottish Premiership victory.

Some of those defending the gathering have justified it by pointed to large numbers that attended some republican funerals in apparent breach of coronavirus restrictions.

There have also been large crowds at loyalist funerals during the pandemic.

Stormont deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill and other senior Sinn Fein figures faced intense criticism from political rivals after attending the funeral of prominent republican Bobby Storey last June.

The event, which was also subject to a police investigation, saw thousands of people lining the streets of west Belfast at a time when strict limits on the size of funerals were in place.

On Tuesday, Ms O’Neill was asked whether that funeral had set a precedent and emboldened others to gather in large numbers regardless of Covid-19 regulations.

“It’s not a zero sum game and I think it’s unfortunate that people will try to compare a funeral with what was sectarian chants and crowds of people on the street,” she said.

“So I would be more inclined to call out the sectarianism that I witnessed at the weekend and certainly what I saw on social media and just to say that it’s wrong but we all have a duty to try and follow the public health advice.

“We are in such a good place right now (in regard to the public health data).

“However, there’s no room for complacency and we all just need to keep at it, and we will get to the other end of this sooner rather than later with everybody’s support.”

Ms O’Neill commented on the Shankill Road scenes as she visited a vaccination centre at the Ulster Hospital with First Minister Arlene Foster and Health Minister Robin Swann.

Mrs Foster again stressed the need for people to abide by public health regulations.

She also expressed concern about the potential for large gatherings to mark St Patrick’s Day next week.

“We have concerns about that and I know that the taskforce in the executive are looking at St Patrick’s weekend to see what more it is we can do to try and stop these activities taking place, because they are putting not only themselves at risk, but their families and the community at risk,” said the DUP leader.

Ms O’Neill said the Executive would tailor specific messages for St Patrick’s Day, Mothering Sunday and Easter to encourage people to stick with the current rules.

Fourth wave of Covid-19 deaths and infections inevitable says Professor Chris Whitty

Chief medical officer has said he would “strongly advise” against any move to shorten the timetable for easing lockdown restrictions - write Jane Kirby, Nina Massey and David Hughes, PA.

Professor Chris Whitty said there were still risks to reopening society and the UK will experience another surge of cases at some point, potentially in late summer or through the autumn and winter.

Speaking to the Commons Science and Technology Committee alongside the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Prof Whitty said the measures pencilled in for May 17, when indoor mixing of up to six people could be allowed, involved “significant risks”.

He told MPs he would “strongly advise” against any attempt to “concertina” the five-week interval between steps, saying the April 12 measures are “a very big block”, with shops and outdoor hospitality due to open.

May 17 further represents “a very significant block with a lot of stuff that is indoors for the first time, that is the point when we are really going to start to see some very significant risks accumulating, potentially”.

Prof Whitty said that although older and vulnerable people would mostly be protected by vaccines, younger people will not all be vaccinated by April, and they mostly drive transmission of the virus.

Modelling considered by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has suggested that even under the most optimistic set of assumptions, at least a further 30,000 Covid-19 deaths could occur.

Prof Whitty said that “even if you have a relatively small proportion of people still remaining vulnerable, that still equates to a very large number of people overall”.

That might include people for whom the vaccine is not effective, those who do not take it or those in younger groups who have not yet been offered a jab, he said.

“What we are going to see is, as things are opening up, what all the modelling suggests is that at some point we will get a surge in virus,” he said.

“We hope it doesn’t happen soon, it might for example happen later in the summer if we open up gradually or because of the seasonal effect it might happen over the next autumn and winter.

“All the modelling suggests there is going to be a further surge and that will find the people who either have not been vaccinated or where the vaccine has not worked.

“Some of them will end up in hospital and sadly some of them will go on to die.”

Prof Whitty further defended the approach of allowing five-week time intervals between steps of unlocking in order to assess their impact on the virus – saying leaders in all countries had eased off too quickly in the past.

He told MPs: “If you look at the history of this all around the world, the history of this is not full of countries and individual leaders wishing they had done more, faster.

“It’s full of leaders who wished they had acted quicker and then been more careful as they take things off.”

He said the situation could “turn bad” very quickly if a close eye is not kept on it.

“I think a lot of people may think that this is all over,” he added. “I would encourage them to look at what is happening in continental Europe at the moment where a lot of countries are going back into rates going up and having to close things down again, having not been in that situation before.

“I think it’s very easy to forget quite how quickly things can turn bad if you don’t keep a very very close eye on it.”

He went on: “If you’re thinking about a surge in transmission, remember that the great majority of those who will drive a surge in transmission are not yet vaccinated and will not be vaccinated by Easter.

“So, I think the idea that that is the sort of get out of jail card in terms of a surge of transmission, I think, is to misremember where in the age spectrum the drive of transmission is, and it’s in younger adults, not in those who have so far been vaccinated, by and large.”

Prof Whitty added that “if you open up too fast, a lot more people die”.

He continued: “It is really important that we do not give any impression that what we are expecting is this just goes away and there is no further deaths.

“That is not realistic and I think to pretend that to the British public would be completely wrong.”

Asked whether “data, not dates” was just a slogan, Sir Patrick told the Science and Technology Committee “for us it is not”.

He added: “For us it’s very important that you measure what you’ve done and we don’t know what the impact of, for example schools going back, is going to be.

“And so there’s an estimate from the modelling group that it could have an effect on R, between 10% and 15% increase. We don’t know within that range exactly what it would be.”

He added: “Nobody would say that we know exactly how this is going to roll out over the next few months.

“And the important thing is to measure, adapt and take decisions in the light of information as it emerges.”

240 new infections detected and two additional Covid-19 related deaths in last 24 hours

The Department of Health (DoH) has recorded 240 new infections and two additional Covid-19 related deaths in the last 24 hours.

The number of new infections represents an increase of more than 60 per cent when compared to data seven days ago on Tuesday March 2, 2021.

The new data also means the number of people to test positive for the virus in the last seven days and since the beginning of the pandemic to 1,269 and 114,029 respectively.

The two additional Covid-19 related deaths takes the death toll since the beginning of the pandemic to 2,079.

The deaths occurred in the local council areas of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon and Newry, Mourne and Down.

The two people to sadly pass away were both female and were both aged between 60 and 79 years-old.

The two deaths also occurred in a hospital setting.

The total number of Covid-19 inpatients up to midnight on Monday was 222 - this represents a drop of 32 per cent when compared to the number of Covid inpatients recorded seven days ago.

There are currently 119 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds in Northern Ireland; 32 of which are occupied by Covid-19 patients; 66 of which are occupied by patient with other conditions and 21 of which are unoccupied.

Northern Ireland’s hospital bed capacity is currently at 93 per cent.

Boris Johnson tells Taoiseach Micheal Martin he won't be sharing Covid-19 vaccines until everyone in United Kingdom is offered jab first

Taoiseach Micheal Martin has been told by Boris Johnson that the UK is not in a position to give surplus Covid-19 vaccines to Ireland.

Mr Martin said that the Prime Minister’s first priority is to vaccinate people living in the UK.

Ireland is struggling to meet its vaccine targets following a number of delivery issues.

These are affecting the Government’s vaccine programme, with question marks over its plan to roll out one million vaccines in April.

Mr Martin said he was “disappointed” with some of the issues relating to the vaccine supply.

Speaking on Tuesday, Mr Martin said: “The British Prime Minister has made it clear to me that obviously his first priority is to vaccinate his people.

“It would be helpful to Ireland if the situation arose, but right now he has to concentrate on vaccinating his own people.

“Until then he won’t be in a position to give vaccines to anybody and he has made that point to me, which I thought was fairly obvious at the outset.”

Asked about the supply, Mr Martin said: “We are disappointed with quarter one in terms of the issues, but in terms of protecting the most vulnerable, we have made progress on that and the impact of the vaccines is very positive.

“We have seen that in terms of healthcare workers, hospitals and in nursing homes in particular, and now out in the community in the over-80s. That is good news.

“We have very good vaccines that are giving protection to people as well.”

Ireland has extended its lockdown restrictions until April 5. Mr Martin said the Government will review the level five restrictions in a number of weeks.

He added: “We will take the advice from NPHET (National Public Health Emergency Team) and public health, and concentrate on the areas already identified in terms of the sporting and outdoor activity that we indicated we would look at. It will depend on where the numbers are.

“But we are making progress as a country, and the adherence to the regulations does matter, particularly in context of a variant.

“We are taking the pressure off the frontline workers.

“We will be in a better position before April 5 to make informed decisions.”

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