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Debate over easing coronavirus lockdown in Northern Ireland is getting ahead of itself, says Swann


A PSNI officer on patrol in a deserted Belfast city centre (PSNI/PA)

A PSNI officer on patrol in a deserted Belfast city centre (PSNI/PA)


A PSNI officer on patrol in a deserted Belfast city centre (PSNI/PA)

Health Minister Robin Swann has warned against "getting ahead of ourselves" by setting dates on how Northern Ireland's lockdown measures could be eased - as the situation remains "incredibly serious".

Speaking at Stormont's daily press briefing yesterday as 17 further deaths were confirmed, Mr Swann said that while evidence suggests Northern Ireland is through the worst of the first peak of the pandemic, more families will be "thrown into mourning in the days and weeks ahead".

Noting that traffic levels had increased in recent days and another bank holiday weekend was approaching, the North Antrim MLA said he wanted to issue a May Day alert to urge people to continue "to do the right thing".

"No matter how good the weather is, no matter how strong the temptation might be, don't give in and don't give up," Mr Swann said.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

On relaxing social distancing, Mr Swann said any change in the current restrictions would be gradual, with no overnight change or "big breakouts".

He added: "I am becoming increasingly concerned. I am concerned that the debate on the future of the lockdown is getting ahead of itself.

"It is getting ahead of the reality people are still facing.

"It would pile tragedy upon tragedy if Northern Ireland lost its way at this stage."

Mr Swann urged the public to stick to the guidelines to keep saving lives and protect the NHS.

"We have a long way to go yet. This is no time for bailing out or doing your own thing,

"We must stick to social distancing. We can't lose our way.

"We don't want to look back in the future with regret," said Mr Swann.

Earlier yesterday, figures released by the Department of Health confirmed that Northern Ireland's coronavirus death toll has now reached 404.

Six people died in the previous 24 hours, with a further 11 deaths occurring outside this period but only being reported yesterday.

A further 45 people tested positive for the virus, bringing the total number of people infected here to 3,881.

New figures have also suggested the UK coronavirus death toll of 32,375 is now the highest in Europe, overtaking 29,315 deaths in Italy.

Meanwhile, the number of deaths in the Republic of Ireland has risen to 1,339 after a further 23 deaths were announced yesterday.

The Republic has already published its own timetable for exiting the lockdown, while Stormont ministers are due to meet tomorrow to review regulations.

But Mr Swann said putting dates on changes to the regulations "leads people into the false sense of security".

"During the next period of time, we will not be returning to what we knew as being normal.

"There will be a new normal in Northern Ireland for a long period of time while we get Covid-19 under control," he added.

Addressing the briefing, Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said there was a "long way to go yet" before the crisis passed and it was important people don't regret their actions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr McBride said careful planning was needed before any decisions could be made, while social distancing would also have to continue alongside good respiratory and hand hygiene. He added that a number of things were certain, including that people who could work from home would have to continue to do so.

Dr McBride acknowledged that the stay-at-home order was extremely difficult and causing social and economic issues but he said the reproductive number of the virus had to be kept below one or there would be an "exponential rise in new cases".

Dr McBride confirmed plans to ramp up contact tracing and that discussions were ongoing with colleagues in the Republic of Ireland and UK around digital platforms for doing so.

He said 80% of cases would need to be identified within 48 hours for the plan to be effective.

Dr McBride also urged people not to break the restrictions during the upcoming bank holiday.

"People are tired and we have a number of weeks to go yet before we are in a position where I believe the evidence suggests that it would be safe to step down any of these measures without seeing that R number (the number of people each person with the virus infects) increase and us getting back to that situation that we had an exponential growth."

Dr McBride called for "mature and respectful" discussion with the public and said that now is not the time for confusion around the easing of measures when it was not yet safe to do so.

"We just need to ensure that we don't give mixed messages. I would be reluctant to put in place an artificial time frame for those decisions prematurely."

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