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Coronavirus restrictions in Northern Ireland 'may last for months' as lockdown exit talks to begin

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Dr Michael McBride, Chief Medical Officer, during the daily media briefing at Stormont yesterday

Dr Michael McBride, Chief Medical Officer, during the daily media briefing at Stormont yesterday

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Dr Michael McBride, Chief Medical Officer, during the daily media briefing at Stormont yesterday

Discussions on how Northern Ireland will exit the Covid-19 lockdown will begin in the Assembly tomorrow - although the Chief Medical Officer has warned the public that some restrictions are likely to be in place "for many months to come".

Dr Michael McBride said that it was "premature to talk of exit strategies" and that if Northern Ireland comes out of lockdown too soon the virus could rapidly re-emerge.

"It's early days yet. Complacency is out greatest enemy here," said Dr McBride.

"It would be premature to my mind to say that we are through the worst of this.

"I think that any relaxation of those social distancing measures at this time, or any inability of the public to stick with this, then we will rapidly see a re-emergence of this virus and then again we will see our health service come under very significant pressure."

Dr McBride said that "there is absolutely no doubt we will need to understand more about how this virus is behaving", adding: "I think it's premature to talk about exit strategies, or certainly use that term."

Dr McBride also warned that Covid-19 is "going nowhere".

"In many respects it is only in such times as we have immunity to this virus that we can absolutely begin to have that conversation about an exit strategy," he said.

"A vaccine is a very, very long way off.

"I think what is more likely in the interim is that we will develop some effective treatment which can reduce the impact in terms of those who develop severe illness.

"This virus is going nowhere. This virus is with us to stay.

"Social distancing measures of some form or other are going to be with us for a significant period of time.

"And we will have to adjust to a new normal ... because it will not be a return to life as we remember before Covid-19 for some many, many months.

"Our decisions will be informed by the best scientific evidence that we have and the modelling that we have available to us.

"We are likely to have some form of social distancing for quite some time to come and we are not at this stage at a point where it is wide or prudent to relax the measures that we currently have in place." Health Minister Robin Swann said that the Assembly will be meeting later this week to begin talks on how Northern Ireland can come out of lockdown.

Mr Swann said: "We need to look to a point beyond where we are now.

"It will be very much directed towards the steps we need to take, but without putting a timeline on it.

"One thing we are conscious of is that there has to be a recovery for Northern Ireland, there has to be a return to the new normality that we will see in daily life until we get control of Covid-19, should that be through a vaccine or through enhanced testing and tracing.

"What I don't want to do at this point in time is give any indication that we have a date set as to when certain steps will be taken.

"That will be a decision for the Executive and the sequence of those will be driven by the health intelligence.

"There's a great piece of work to be done, but it's a piece of work the Executive are starting on, also how we return to as normal as we possibly can."

Mr Swann added: "Covid-19 and coronavirus will be with us for quite some time."

Dr McBride also dismissed criticism that Northern Ireland was too late in introducing social distancing measures.

"The virus evolved differently in different parts of Europe," he said.

"The path of the epidemic in Northern Ireland is very similar, indeed probably a little bit lower than that even in the Republic of Ireland so at this juncture, while it is no cause for complacency, this is on a knife edge."

Belfast Telegraph