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UTV’s ‘Up Close: Unlocking The Virus’ - a coronavirus special

Government, scientists, families and medics speak about their experiences of the coronavirus pandemic and look to the future

The next episode of UTV’s current affairs programme ‘Up Close’ takes an in-depth look at a year of COVID-19, looking back as the pandemic unfolded, and at key events which have led Northern Ireland to where it is today in tackling coronavirus, as well as looking ahead to what life might look like after lockdown.

UTV Reporter, Paul Reilly

Airing on 23rd March, the anniversary of the announcement of the first national lockdown, and presented by UTV reporter Paul Reilly, those at the centre of the story have shared their experiences in this compelling and moving programme.

In a candid interview, Health Minister Robin Swann tells UTV how the potential death toll of the pandemic took him to a dark place. Other contributors include local virologists and a hospital consultant, as well as the bereaved sister of one of the first victims, and those still dealing with the health problems that come with ‘Long Covid’.

We learn of the ‘perfect storm’ that led to the pandemic, and how the science community here has been central to the global efforts to combat the virus. Virologist Dr Lindsay Broadbent of Queen’s University reveals how it is believed an early form of coronavirus existed over 100 years ago, and says the response from the scientific community to this pandemic has been hugely positive.

“Not just their response but their collaboration.” she says, “I’ve never seen anything like this. We had the scientists that originally sequenced the virus - they had those sequences up in a matter of days.”

In terms of potential treatments for COVID-19, Prof. Tony Bjourson, Professor of Genomics at Ulster University, explains how specific genes have been identified that are linked to the virus. He is part of an international team that is developing new treatment drugs, and envisages that there will soon be different tests and treatments.

Professor Tony Bjourson

He said:

“Given the pace of progress we’ve seen this year, and given the remarkable and extraordinary cooperation globally where people are sharing information on an unprecedented scale, I would envisage this time next year, there will be a panel of tests that will be able to identify firstly who is at higher risk of succumbing to infection, and secondly, if you do succumb to infection, what treatment interventions aside from a vaccine might be most effective.”

Paul also speaks to Robin Swann about how, as a fledgling Health Minister, he was tasked with dealing with the biggest crisis to hit the NHS in a lifetime. He speaks of the sleepless nights he still has over the pandemic and the behind-the-scenes calculations that left him fearing the worst.

While the vaccine roll out has been hugely successful, new variants are still a concern, although Robin Swann tells Paul:

If another variant appears, there’ll still be the same intensity and veracity in producing another vaccine.”

Joan Fulton’s brother Billy Allan was the third person in Northern Ireland to die from coronavirus. Joan, from Newtownards, speaks to Paul about the events leading up to his death, the support of the nursing staff, and how she herself was hospitalised after contracting the virus.

Telling Paul of the effect this has had on her and her family, she said:

I hope at the end of this journey, whatever that looks like, we become less busy worrying about ourselves, and more caring, by caring for each other.”

Hillsborough woman Alison Dunlop tells Paul about her battle with COVID-19, and how months later, she is still not fully recovered.

My life is not the same as what it was a year ago, and I don’t know potentially what my life will be in a year, and for the future, and how that’s going to impact on my ability to be a mum, to be a wife, to be a daughter. It’s the unknown, it’s what to do with the unknown and that is worrying, it’s scary.”

Paul Reilly talking to Prof Tony Bjourson for UTV's Up Close

Looking to the future, Dr Connor Bamford of Queen’s University says:

"I'm incredibly hopeful for a return to normality. If we can get through this year and the next couple of years, I think we'll be back to normal and most people won't have to worry about COVID-19, and it'll just be something that virologists worry about."

Programme Producer, Alison Fleming said:

“‘Up Close: Unlocking the Virus’ provides a comprehensive look at where we go next. Thank you to everyone who took part in the programme and especially those survivors and families who still struggle today. It’s been an incredibly tough year, and the consensus from the experts is that while we are not out of the woods yet, there's more to hope for than to fear.”

‘Up Close: Unlocking the Virus’ airs on UTV on Tuesday 23rd March at 8pm.


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