The Department of Health, for a third week, has refused to answer questions surrounding regional test centres that were posed by the Impartial Reporter while there has also been a lack of clarity from the Department around the issue of testing capacity within Northern Ireland, despite First Minister Arlene Foster saying it is vital that it is in place to proceed with an exit from lockdown.

With respect to regional test centres, there are three in Northern Ireland, located at Belfast, Londonderry and Craigavon, where key workers, outside of health and social care staff, can get tested.

It means that Fermanagh key workers such as, food suppliers, childcare providers and others, must travel over an hour to get tested. The Impartial Reporter asked the Department if there were plans to increase the number of regional test centres in Northern Ireland and if there were plans to have one in the South West region but this query has not been answered.

However Victor Warrington, UUP Councillor and party colleague of Robin Swann, the Health Minister told a meeting of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council that if a fourth regional testing centre is set up it will “likely be based in Enniskillen”.

Councillor Victor Warrington stated that: “Under the National Programme there will be two more mobile testing units, one of which will be in the Fermanagh / Omagh area … Three current testing units are in Craigavon, Londonderry and Belfast. If there is a fourth, it more than likely will be based in Enniskillen.”

The Department has also been asked by this newspaper what the daily testing capacity is across Northern Ireland at present. This is not the number of tests that are currently being carried out but rather the total tests that could be carried out at full capacity. This figure is crucial in terms of plans to roll out track and trace measures which the Stormont Executive has said are vital for the proposed exit to lockdown. The Department responded by stating the combined testing in Health and Social Care Labs and the National Testing centres was over 2,000 and that this figure could fluctuate daily. The response provided no figures in relation to what the actual maximum capacity for testing is and when asked for clarification none was provided by the Department

First Minister, Arlene Foster has said the testing system sat alongside NHS capacity and the infection rate (R number) as the three key factors that would influence the exit strategy and moving from one step to another.

“We very much need that testing capacity is in place for us to be able to move through the different steps,” she said.

“And Michelle (O’Neill, Deputy First Minister) and I are both very clear about the fact that we do need that regime in place and I think the whole executive understands that that is the case.

“So it’s about building that capacity in relation to testing, making sure that our NHS has the capacity to deal with wherever we are at and then, of course, the R number being pulled down on all of the time. It will, when we relax regulations, probably move upwards a little bit, but then it’s about pushing it back down again through the testing and tracing and isolating.”

In the Republic of Ireland. a target weekly test capacity of 100,000 has been set which equates to 14,000 per day or one test per 273 of the population. In Northern Ireland the 2,000 figure provided by the Department equates to one per 950 of the population.