Covid centres in the North see near-doubling in number of suspected cases

Covid-19 centres run by GPs have seen a near-doubling in the number of referrals in just one week, Northern Ireland’s health minister said.

A total of 733 people attended earlier this month compared with 427 the week before, NI health minister Robin Swann said.

Mr Swann said: “It shows that they are providing a service that keeps the rest of GP practices open to those presenting with non-Covid symptoms.”

Frustrated patients have relayed daily reports to Assembly members of being unable to physically see GPs for non-Covid care.

People are referred to one of 10 specialised Covid centres around Northern Ireland with suspected symptoms of the infection.

There, GPs will assess whether they need admission to hospital or other care.

Staffing at the centres was scaled back as the initial wave of disease receded this summer but doctors have been increasingly called upon as virus spread has increased in recent weeks.

Mr Swann confirmed the rise in numbers treated during an appearance in the Assembly on Tuesday afternoon.

He acknowledged some doctors had expressed reticence about the centres but added the majority supported them.

An area of localised restrictions, like Ballymena, in a recent week saw 65 suspected Covid patients compared with 20 the week before, the minister said.

South Down SDLP Assembly member Colin McGrath said people were struggling to access non-Covid face-to-face appointments with GPs.

He said: “It is an increasingly common complaint we are getting about people having access to their GP.

“It is creating a lot of frustration and worry, especially amongst those who are older.”

Some people find it more difficult to communicate their conditions during telephone consultations than in person, a short discussion at Stormont heard.

Meanwhile, Mr Swann said the health service was well-stocked with personal protective equipment but maintained the hope that a second resurgence in coronavirus could be avoided.

Up to 12 weeks’ supply of PPE is available and he has approved a business case for three additional warehouses to contain materials.

The minister said: “The supply chains we were able to put in place for our GPs proved effective.

“They were difficult and bumpy at the start but when we got to deliver to them, we were able to get there.”