Ovens recalls learning of North’s first Covid case

MOST of us have our own distinct recollections of the early days of the pandemic but for one Fermanagh man, who was one of the first to learn the virus had arrived in the North, every moment of the beginning of the outbreak here will live long in his memory.

As special advisor (SpAd) to then Health Minister Robin Swann, Mark Ovens, had only been in his new post at the Department of Health for a few weeks when worrying reports began to emerge of a new virus spreading in the east.

Mr Ovens recalled how when they first arrived at the Department focus had been on industrial action that had been underway for some time, but which was thankfully resolved due to “a bit of goodwill and give and take from both sides.”


A new challenge quickly emerged, however.

“Within only a few weeks internal alarm bells were beginning to ring in relation to a virus that was circulating in a city in China that few of us had ever heard of,” he said, recalling a time that sounds eerily like the opening of a Hollywood movie.

“Very quickly it began to dominate more and more of everyone’s time as what had started as occasional confidential briefings and scenario planning became a daily occurrence,” he continued.

“It quickly dawned on us all however that Northern Ireland’s first case would be a case of when and not if.”

They would not have to wait long.

“I’ll always remember that moment – it was the morning of February 27th, 2020.

“Robin Swann, the Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride and I were attending a UK drugs conference in Glasgow. Robin was actually at the podium about half way through delivering his speech whenever Michael leaned over and whispered to me that the first NI case had just been confirmed.


“It was a surreal moment waiting for Robin to finish but also realising this was the start of everything that we had planned for.

“Straight after he had finished his speech we found ourselves on a phone in a room upstairs, a new flight was hurriedly being booked to bring us back to Belfast early and plans for the next steps were being made.”

Mr Ovens said he had actually planned on going to a comedy show in the Ardhowen Theatre when he returned home that night, and said another memory that will always stay with him was calling his wife from a quiet corner of the hospital to explain why he wouldn’t be able to make it.

“At the time new Covid cases were major news and maintaining patient confidentiality was key so even in the taxi back to Glasgow airport we had to speak in hushed tones,” he said.

“From the first case being formally announced later that night, to the subsequent detection of Covid clusters and outbreaks, to the first hospitalisation and sadly the first death at the time it felt the days and late nights were all running into one another.

“Thankfully however the initial lockdowns worked, the spread of the virus slowed, our hospitals and health workers stepped up virtually overnight, and ultimately the vaccine proved the game changer that we all hoped it would.”

He added, fondly, “Two days after the vaccine was approved my first daughter Isobelle was born in the SWAH.”

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