The newly-discovered Brazilian variant of Covid-19 could already be present in Northern Ireland, an expert has said.
Dr Connor Bamford was speaking as three cases of the more-easily transmissible Brazil variant of the virus were formally detected in the Republic of Ireland at the weekend.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, the Queen's University virologist explained it was possible such mutations could already be present north of the border and that any easing of restrictions should be done "cautiously" with that in mind.
"We probably have to assume that could happen over the next few months or has indeed already happened," he said when asked about the chances of the Brazilian variant reaching Northern Ireland.
"Northern Ireland doesn't have any international flights coming into it currently, so we have to be aware it could be coming from mainland UK or Ireland.
"There is no point detecting it when it gets here and becomes established. We have to build that into the next couple of months in terms of our response.
"If there are less restrictions, that is when these things can spread best and spread more quickly. The one thing we can do most effectively is keeping with these restrictions and then cautiously lifting them.
"Although these variants spread better, they are just as sensitive to wearing a mask and being two metres distant and avoiding crowds.
"This variant probably won't rise that high unless we let restrictions off too quickly.
"If we have a strategy of just vaccinating our most vulnerable but releasing restrictions and letting the virus run free, either you are going to allow one of the variants in, or else you create a new variant that will then potentially reduce how effective your vaccines are."
A further four deaths linked to coronavirus were reported in Northern Ireland yesterday, as well as 263 new positive cases.
There have been 110,979 positive cases confirmed here since the start of the pandemic.
Fears that emerging variants of the virus could be more contagious and potentially affect the effectiveness of vaccines have led to calls for more robust quarantine measures for travellers.
Dr Gabriel Scally, a professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a member of the Independent SAGE advisory group, warned that the Irish government should consider adding Britain to its list of countries that require mandatory hotel quarantine after the UK variant, first detected in Ireland on Christmas Day, became the dominant strain within weeks.
"Given our experience with the mass importation of the [B117] variant, it's pretty obvious if you want to stop the influx of variants the most likely place they will come from is the UK," he told the Business Post.
"The only way to limit the variant is to have mandatory isolation for people coming from Britain."
Yesterday, Health Minister Robin Swann confirmed that Belfast's SSE Arena will be used as a vaccination centre for Northern Ireland's adult population.
It is anticipated it will open in April as a facility for those 60 and under, not already vaccinated through the trust or GP programmes.
Mr Swann described it as "a monumental next step in a population-wide vaccination programme".
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is set to prioritise the opening of schools in England when he lays out his road map for easing restrictions later today.
Boris Johnson will detail the "cautious" approach based on "four key tests" of data before any restrictions are eased, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock saying yesterday that there will be a period of "weeks" between the steps of each relaxation of the lockdown.