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Health Minister Robin Swann today acknowledged the scale of staff and public frustration on the issues of testing and personal protective equipment (PPE).

The Minister also emphasised that every conceivable effort is being made to improve both situations.

“I can assure staff and the wider public that these two issues are receiving absolute priority. It’s no secret that MOT centres and the SSE Arena are among the options being pursued by the HSC system as staff testing sites.

“Staff testing numbers are expanding and will continue to do so as rapidly as possible. I fully understand the frustration that we have not been able to scale up testing numbers more quickly.

“This is not down to a lack of will or action. There are significant challenges including laboratory and staffing capacity and the unprecedented levels of global demand for testing reagents and swabs.

“I want to make clear that we have been in contact with local company Randox over the past number of days regarding its testing product. We have been informed by Randox that its production line is fully geared towards the NHS as a whole and NI will receive a share of that.

“However, we will also continue to explore procuring testing products separately from NHS wide arrangements. We do not want to be dependent on one source for these products.”

Mr Swann stressed: “I am confident we will make significant progress on staff testing in the days ahead. But I want to be totally frank about the pressures that exist. If there were quick fixes available, I would certainly have used them.”

Turning to PPE, the Minister said: “Our health service has significant levels of PPE in stock at present but need to boost these quantities given the expected level of demand in coming weeks. Our PPE supplies have been supported through release of 30% of the emergency pandemic stockpile as announced last week – in the region of 3 million items.

“Updated UK-wide NHS guidance on PPE use has been issued. This guidance will inform PPE use across our system and help us to prioritise distribution.

“I fully understand that staff on the frontline need reassurance. I believe the updated guidance and securing greater quantities of PPE for Northern Ireland will both play a part in allaying concerns.

“I want to make absolutely clear that the PPE guidance is about ensuring staff have the appropriate level of protection for the circumstances they are working in – it is absolutely not, nor will it ever be, about seeking to restrict the use of equipment.”

He continued: “The situation with PPE supply has been made more challenging by the fact that supply routes from China, a leading global provider, were closed until recently.

“I am actively working with the Finance Minister to pursue all feasible supply routes, both international and local.

“I recognise that other NI Departments are also facing PPE challenges. We have to tackle this together across the Executive and also to appreciate the scale of global competition for PPE products.”

The Minister added: “It would be facile for anyone to suggest that there has been any lack of urgency. We are doing everything we can to best of our ability to make things better.

“Our health service has been under consider financial pressure for the past 10 years. That has inevitably had a bearing on its capacity. I cannot undo that, but I will work night and day for the sake of the public and our great health and social care staff. Colleagues right across the system at all levels are doing the same.”

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