A virology expert has defended Northern Ireland's response to the coronavirus pandemic which could kill up to 3,000 people in its first wave.
Dr Connor Bamford, a virologist from Queen's University in Belfast, said social distancing measures appear to be helping to slow the spread of the virus but said anyone showing signs of the disease should isolate for a fortnight instead of the recommended seven days.
"I think there has been a lot of talk about the differences between the way Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are responding to the virus and I'm not sure the criticisms are fair, I think it is just inflaming things," he said.
"Both the Republic and Northern Ireland are doing pretty good, no-one is doing perfectly, but I do think something they are doing in the Republic, where people with the virus are isolating for 14 days, is something we should be replicating here.
"This is because there is evidence that the virus is still present in people's nostrils after 10 days.
"However, in Northern Ireland, we are quite fortunate that the lockdown came in relatively early and I think the possibility of 3,000 people dying in the first wave is a good figure to aim for," he added.
Dr Bamford was speaking after Health Minister Robin Swann revealed the key findings of an expert modelling study looking at the virus in Northern Ireland, which is being used to inform preparations for the impending surge of coronavirus here.
Mr Swann said experts now believe that up to 3,000 people may lose their lives after a drastic lockdown was put in place across Northern Ireland and that the health service has "a realistic prospect of coping in this initial period".
I think we are looking at the possibility of a third and fourth wave and it will keep coming back, so social distancing measures will be an important tool until a vaccine is developed and everyone can be vaccinatedDr Connor Bamford
However, he stressed that this will only be possible if people continue to follow the advice over staying at home and only leave when absolutely essential.
"I would emphasise that it provides no grounds whatsoever for dropping our guard," he explained.
"On the contrary, the projections underline that the continuation of rigorous social distancing will save many lives and protect our health service from collapse.
"Even then, a reasonable worst case scenario would involve significant loss of life In Northern Ireland.
"In addition, the absence of a vaccine means we will have to plan for a potential second wave of Covid-19 cases later in the year."
Dr Bamford said officials will only be able to look at lifting restrictions on movement when the number of cases and deaths begin to drop considerably.
"It wouldn't really make sense for them to look at removing the measures until the figures drop below the levels when the lockdown was put in place," he added.
"It would have to be done very carefully to make sure that the second wave, when it happens, is kept under control as much as possible.
"I think we are looking at the possibility of a third and fourth wave and it will keep coming back, so social distancing measures will be an important tool until a vaccine is developed and everyone can be vaccinated."
Mr Swann revealed the findings of the expert study on Wednesday, which sets out a reasonable worst case scenario, based on a number of assumptions, including social distancing measures producing a 66% reduction in contacts outside the home and workplace.
In addition, 70% of symptomatic cases would adhere to case isolation.
The modelling team's best judgment is that this would lead to a peak number of 180 Covid-19 patients requiring ventilation and critical care beds during the first wave of the epidemic. The peak number of Covid-19 hospital admissions would be 500 per week.
Under this reasonable worst case scenario, the projected number of cumulative Covid-19 deaths in Northern Ireland over 20 weeks of the epidemic would be 3,000.
The modelling indicates that the peak of the first wave of the epidemic will begin next Monday and run until April 20.
The authors of the report said the work is not a prediction or forecast, rather a model for planning purposes.
They continued: "It is assumed that current restrictions remain in place for the foreseeable future. When the current restrictions are relaxed, there will be a second wave. Future modelling will focus on the size and shape of this depending on how and when restrictions are relaxed or re-introduced.
"This will remain the case until there is substantial population immunity either as a result of recovery from infection or successful vaccination," they said.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride has said there are already more than 150 ventilators in place and he is confident that additional ventilators will arrive soon. "It would be wrong to communicate a message that we will not be prepared or ready for this," he said.
First Minister Arlene Foster has said the latest modelling of 3,000 coronavirus deaths makes for "grim reading" and everyone in the tight-knit Northern Ireland community will know someone affected.
The chief executive of Northern Ireland's Health and Safety Executive has defended his organisation's approach to complaints against firms on social distancing measures after a surge in complaints from concerned workers.