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Coronavirus: Social distancing may remain in place in Northern Ireland until the end of 2020, warns QUB virologist

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A Covid-19 customer sign in Botanic Avenue, Belfast, Northern Ireland requesting customers keep their distance on Monday March 30th. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

A Covid-19 customer sign in Botanic Avenue, Belfast, Northern Ireland requesting customers keep their distance on Monday March 30th. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

A Covid-19 customer sign in Botanic Avenue, Belfast, Northern Ireland requesting customers keep their distance on Monday March 30th. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Social distancing measures to stop people dying from Covid-19 are likely to remain in place in Northern Ireland for the rest of 2020, a virology expert has warned.

Dr Connor Bamford also said people who are considered most at risk if they become unwell with coronavirus and have been asked to isolate for 12 weeks may have to take the drastic step once again later in the year.

The virologist from Queen's University in Belfast said he expects the current surge to be over in May but stressed that social isolation restrictions will have to be carefully lifted to prevent another serious outbreak.

While he said officials are likely to look at the possibility of allowing non essential businesses to open again, measures that should remain in place include working from home where possible and staggering of shifts to reduce the number of people working together at any one time.

He also said people should consider wearing masks while in public and recommended against pupils returning to school before September at the earliest.

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Warning: Dr Connor Bamford

Warning: Dr Connor Bamford

Warning: Dr Connor Bamford

"We will be watching very carefully what happens in the likes of Spain and Italy now that they are starting to lift some of the lockdown measures that they have had in place," he said.

"We would expect to see a reduction in cases about three to four weeks after the lockdown was put in place here so we will hopefully see that happening in May and then we can start to think about lifting the measures here, but that will have to be done very carefully and very slowly.

"We can only think about lifting social distancing measures once the number of cases in Northern Ireland goes down to below the number of cases we were seeing before the lockdown was put in place.

"What we don't want is to lift the measures and then have another big outbreak and unfortunately no-one really has a very good idea of how we are going to get out of the lockdown, which is why we will be looking at other countries to see how they cope.

"I would hope that after the 12 weeks are up, the numbers of cases will be quite low again, so people who are currently shielding should be able to leave isolation as they would have been when they were out and about in February.

"There will be significantly less infection but I wouldn't be surprised if they have to go back to shielding for a period again.

"People are going to have to take some personal responsibility.

"It is going to require people being careful and working from home and employers being flexible.

"We might see people using face masks which might help.

"However, I really don't think we should consider the schools going back until September at the earliest, particularly as kids spread things so easily.

"I think there is time for that conversation later in the year. Certainly I don't think it should happen this term as the risks are too big.

"The reality is when people start to move about again, a second peak will happen."

Dr Bamford also warned against lifting restrictions on movement simply to keep the economy functioning.

"We can start to remove social distancing measures to get businesses working again but I do think that if there is a death linked to that, then there will be questions raised as to whether it was worth it," he said.

"It is someone's life after all, so even if the numbers of deaths are small, they will be unnecessary deaths, so I think we have to be so careful.

"I think we are going to have a better idea about what the future holds once this first peak is over and once we have a better idea about what the UK is going to do in terms of testing.

"Once the number of infections are down and people are coming out of hospital, we will hopefully be able to increase the number of people in the community who are tested and that will also go some way help lift restrictions."

Belfast Telegraph