Coronavirus (COVID-19): information on health services

This page contains information on health services in Northern Ireland, specifically the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on them and initiatives being undertaken to support patients.

Primary care COVID-19 centres

A network of new Primary Care COVID-19 centres has been established to manage coronavirus cases in the community

There are centres located in:

  • Londonderry
  • Belfast
  • Dungannon
  • Banbridge
  • Antrim
  • Ballymena
  • Newtownards
  • Lisburn
  • Downpatrick
  • Enniskillen
  • Coleraine

The purpose of the centres is to help make sure vital GP services can be maintained during the coming weeks and months. It is important those who show symptoms are separated from the patients with non COVID-19 related conditions.  

COVID-19 centres are not testing facilities. They are only for patients who are very unwell, are suspected of having the virus and require medical attention.

Patients will not be able to report directly to these centres without being referred by their GP or out of hours provider.

The centres enable patients who have COVID-19 symptoms to be assessed by a GP, whilst maintaining practice based GP services for others.

Patients attending these centres will receive appropriate treatment, assessment and, if necessary, onward referral to hospital.

    Information about pharmacies

    Pharmacies across Northern Ireland are introducing changes to how they work in line with guidance on ‘social distancing.

    You should not go to a pharmacy if:

    • you have a temperature or;
    • persistent cough or;
    • loss of taste or smell

    Instead stay at home, self-isolate and ask a friend, family member or neighbour to go on your behalf.

    Medicine and prescriptions

    There is no need for you to do anything new or different when ordering or taking your medicines.

    People should order prescriptions and take their medicines as normal.

    Extra supplies should not be ordered from your doctor. Stockpiling or purchasing medication that you do not need is unnecessary and could disadvantage other people.

    Hospitals

    Information on hospitals and other health care settings to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of patients and staff is available from the relevant Health and Social Care Trust websites:

    The Nightingale Hospital at Belfast City Hospital’s tower block has now been temporarily stood down. The hospital will continue to be part of the response plan if modelling suggests further waves of the virus.

    Visiting hospitals and other care settings

    On 30 June 2020 updated guidance to visiting rights in care settings, including hospitals, were announced. Information on what the updates mean can be found on the Department of Health website:

    Health and Social Care remote sign language interpreting service

    A free remote interpreting service for British Sign Language (BSL) and Irish Sign Language (ISL) users in Northern Ireland has been introduced to provide the deaf community with access to NHS111 and all health and social care services during the COVID-19 pandemic. This temporary service is provided by Interpreter now.

    Contacting NHS111 using the interpreting service

    To contact NHS111 using this service follow the link below:

    BSL and ISL videos of the press release are available on the Interpreter Now website 

    This part of the service is a Video Relay System that enables Deaf people to telephone NHS111 via a remote BSL or ISL interpreter. 

    The Deaf person contacts the interpreter via the Interpreter Now app, using their smartphone or tablet, or via the secure video link using a computer.  Once they are connected, the interpreter telephones NHS111 on the Deaf person’s behalf.

    Contacting health and social care services using the interpreting service

    To contact all other Health and Social Care services including your local GP, follow the link below:

    It can be used to contact:

    • Northern Ireland GPs and GP Out of Hours Services
    • Hospitals for inpatient or outpatient queries (including independent / private hospitals)
    • All health services, for example, a dentist, optician, optometrist, community pharmacy, etc.
    • All social care services, for example, a social work team, day centre, residential or nursing home (including independent / private care facilities commissioned by HSC)
    • Ambulance services
    • The Northern Ireland COVID19 Community Helpline: 0808 802 0020

    This part of the service includes two elements:

    • video relay system
    • video remote interpreting

    How Video Relay System works

    This enables Deaf people to telephone a Health and Social Care service provider via a remote BSL or ISL interpreter. 

    The Deaf person, the interpreter, and the Health and Social Care service provider can all be in different locations.  The Deaf person contacts the interpreter via the Interpreter Now app, using their smartphone or tablet, or via the secure video link using a computer.  Once they are connected, the interpreter telephones the Health and Social Care service provider on the Deaf person’s behalf.

    How Video Remote Interpreting works

    This enables Deaf people to communicate with a Health and Social Care professional in person, via an online BSL or ISL video interpreter. 

    The Deaf person and the Health and Social Care service provider are together in the same location, while the interpreter is online via secure video link on a screen. 

    To ensure immediate access to telephone services at this time the Video Relay System will be introduced first.

    Children’s and maternity services

    There will be temporary changes to some children and maternity services to help with the anticipated surge in coronavirus patients.

    The changes involve protecting children’s and maternity services while releasing bed space to contribute to the overall surge response. More information is available on Department of Health website.

    A new website has also been launched, containing guidance for pregnant women and information on what is happening in their regional unit.

    Restoration and recovery of paused screening programmes

    The following population screening programmes in Northern Ireland were temporarily paused from the second week in March 2020:

    • abdominal aortic aneurysm screening and surveillance monitoring
    • routine breast screening
    • bowel cancer screening
    • cervical screening
    • routine diabetic eye screening and surveillance monitoring

    This was in response to COVID-19 so that Health and Social Care (HSC) staff and resources could be redeployed and to reduce the risk of exposure to the corona virus for the public and HSC staff.

    In its Strategic Framework for Rebuilding HSC Services, the Department of Health has now called for the phased restoration of these paused programmes.  This has begun and the current position is as follows:

    • abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) screening remains paused for initial screening appointments and surveillance of men with a small AAA - treatment of men with a large AAA has recommenced, but is delayed due to current resources. Surveillance scanning of men with medium AAAs has restarted
    • routine breast screening restarted from 20 July 2020
    • bowel cancer screening backlogs in follow up tests are being cleared and screening invites will recommence from mid-August 2020
    • cervical screening invitations recommenced from end June 2020
    • routine diabetic eye screening and surveillance monitoring to recommence in a phased manner, initially focusing on patients at higher risk of sight threatening retinopathy, from August 2020

    The four month pause to date has resulted in a backlog of people awaiting screening.  In addition the screening programmes will not be able to screen the same number of people as they did before the Covid-19 pandemic. 

    This is due to the need for social distancing and appropriate infection control measures.  It will therefore take many months to get population screening programmes up and running at normal levels.

    While the above programmes were paused due to Covid-19, screening continued to be offered to people who required:

    • higher risk breast screening - all eligible women continued, and are continuing, to be screened at the higher risk screening unit in Antrim Area Hospital (prior to Covid-19 women who required mammography only were able to have their screening at their local breast screening unit; this option was paused as part of the response to Covid-19 and has not yet been reinstated)
    • diabetic eye screening for pregnant women (sight saving laser treatments and urgent intravitreal injections continued, and are continuing, to be provided)
    • infectious diseases in pregnancy screening
    • newborn blood spot screening
    • newborn hearing screening

    There programmes were not paused and continue to be provided.

    Optometrists (Opticians)

    Optometry practices are not currently providing routine eye examinations and have restricted opening days and hours but are continuing to provide urgent and essential eye care.

    If you have any concerns about your eyes, including an urgent eye problem, or a query about your glasses or contact lenses, please telephone your optometry practice first.

    More information is available from the Health and Social Care Board website.

    Dental services

    Due to the COVID 19 outbreak, patients are advised to contact their local dental practice for advice and referral for emergency dental care if necessary.

    More information is available from the Health and Social Care Board website.

    Healthcare staff testing centres

    COVID-19 testing for healthcare workers is taking place at the SSE Arena in Belfast.

    The drive-through facility has been set up in the arena's car park. Testing at the arena is for healthcare workers only and is by appointment.

    The initiative was set up by the Public Health Agency with input from staff from the health and social care trusts.

    MOT test centres in Northern Ireland will also be used as Covid-19 testing sites. Each venue will be assessed for suitability.

    Testing at the sites is for healthcare workers only and is by appointment.

    Testing and tracing for coronavirus (COVID-19)

    Everyone over five years of age in Northern Ireland with symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) is now eligible for testing.

    There is also a contact tracing programme in place. This is a method to help prevent the further spread of infections such as COVID-19.

    Further information on testing, how to book a test and the contact tracing programme is available on the following page:

    Health and social care pre-employment vetting guidance to employers

    Guidance explaining temporary changes to pre-employment vetting policy for health and social care roles to make it quicker for employers to do this so that new or temporary staff and volunteers can be put in place at short notice is available on the Department of Health website.

    Home childcare scheme for essential workers

    From Monday 29 June 2020 access to childcare is no longer restricted to essential workers.

    More information on childcare during the coronavirus pandemic is available:

    Car parking for Health and Social Care staff

    Health and Social Care staff can claim reimbursement for car parking costs.

    Staff who currently pay for parking using on site pay machines should claim for refunds through the Trust’s normal travel reimbursement scheme for parking incurred.

    The Business Services Organisation is working on removing car parking charges for all those staff who pay through their salaries.

    All eligible staff will receive a letter outlining the specific details of the scheme.

    Department of Health coronavirus (COVID-19) updates

    The Department of Health has released a number of updates on the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. These can be accessed on the Department of Health website.

    More useful links

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