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Coronavirus NI: Shut pubs and restaurants now to prevent new lockdown, says public health expert

Fresh restrictions on way if Executive doesn’t act before Christmas, warns epidemiologist

Pubs and restaurants should be closed now to prevent another lockdown in the new year, a public health expert has said.

Clinical epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani called on the Executive to take “aggressive action” before Christmas to stop the Omicron variant from overwhelming the already struggling health service.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

Among the measures she said were required was the immediate closure of hospitality venues and a limit on the number of people who can meet indoors to between six and 10.

Ahead of an Executive meeting about Omicron, First Minister Paul Givan appeared to suggest people should prepare themselves for the possibility of further public health measures in the new year.

Mr Givan told reporters Stormont civil servants were “scenario-planning” a range of options to manage the spread of the new variant.

“We don’t need to be panicking, but we do need to recognise that what we are being advised is that this new variant is going to become a challenge for us early in the new year. We need to be ready for that,” he added.

“Preparation is taking place. That’s what some of the discussion will be at the Executive, so that we have all of this thought through in terms of what may be necessary.”

While Mr Givan, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Health Minister Robin Swann have said they do not want to put extra measures in place ahead of Christmas, Dr Gurdasani said acting now was the wisest course of action.

“We need to take short, aggressive action rather than spending months in lockdown, which will impact on everyone more,” she explained. 

“There is a short-termism about keeping everyone happy, [but] that will do maximum damage to the health service and people’s livelihoods.

“There will be lots of people in hospital and many people will have died.”

Dr Gurdasani stressed it was not yet possible to say how long any new restrictions on meeting others indoors would last.

“That would depend on the data — the R-number, the number of cases and the understanding we have about Omicron at a given time,” she said. 

“There shouldn’t be pre-specified dates, but rather evidence-based policy.

“Ultimately, the duration will depend on how late measures are put in place, with late measures meaning restrictions will need to be more stringent and last for longer. Pre-emptive action is better on all counts.

“I think we need to be very worried. Omicron is spreading very rapidly, with a doubling time of two to three days, which is exponential growth.

“We still don’t know the impact the variant will have on older age groups.

“What we can say is that the impact of Omicron will be severe. It is just [about] the extent of the severity. Even in the best-case scenario, it is likely to overrun the health systems.

“We need to take aggressive action now because we are heading into a crisis.

“The health service is already devastated and the emergency services are already at breaking point. 

“There is going to be further pressure on the system, there’s no doubt about it.”

Dr Alan Stout, the chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee in Northern Ireland, said his colleagues were already resigned to the prospect of an extremely challenging period after Christmas.

“Everyone is very tired. They’re worn out and they know what’s coming,” he added.

“It’s a fine balance when it comes to making decisions on whether to put more restrictions in place.

“We hope the measures we already have will help. We need to double down on the things we know work.

“Hand-washing, social distancing and wearing face coverings, we know these are effective with Delta and they will also be effective with Omicron. 

“It’s also important that people are vaccinated and that those who are invited for a booster dose attend their appointment, but there is very little spare capacity in the system at the moment.

“There are concerns that we’re going to see ourselves back where we were last Christmas.”

Yesterday, the Health Secretary said the Government’s shift to Plan B is an attempt to "buy time" to avoid the threat of a million Omicron infections by the end of the year. Sajid Javid defended the sudden shift in the Government's approach to tackling the virus in England, with an extension of mask-wearing from Friday, a return to working from home on Monday and mandatory Covid passports for large venues from Wednesday.

Mr Javid acknowledged the decisions will have a "real impact on our liberties" but insisted that taking action now is the only way to avoid having to impose tougher measures later.

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