Chief Medical Officer wants to see ‘as many people as possible’ receive first dose
The easing of restrictions in Northern Ireland is “some time away yet”, Northern Ireland’s top doctor has said.
Dr Michael McBride, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer (CMO), said levels of transmission of Covid-19 and the pressures on the health service mean that it is not safe to consider lifting the lockdown.
“I think the easing of restrictions is some time away yet in my view,” he said.
Speaking at a media briefing on Tuesday afternoon, Dr McBride said there are a number of criteria he would like to see met before restrictions in Northern Ireland are relaxed.
The Northern Ireland Executive is due to meet on Thursday to discuss the current lockdown, after originally stating the measures put in place at Christmas would remain in place until February 6.
Dr McBride said the lockdown has been effective in reducing the R number for community transmission in Northern Ireland, which he said has been below 1 for a number of weeks.
However, pressures on the hospital system remain high and more patients are expected to need an intensive care bed in the coming weeks.
The CMO said it is imperative that hospital pressures ease, as well as a continued reduction in new cases before restrictions can be lifted.
He also said he wants “as many people as possible” to receive their first dose of the vaccine before steps are taken to lift the measures in place to control the spread of the virus.
However, he warned the emergence of the Kent variant of Covid-19, which is between 50 and 70% more infectious than the current dominant strain in Northern Ireland, will make it more difficult to bring the virus under control.
“Unfortunately the R number for hospital admissions remains above one and whilst the numbers seem to be plateauing, I anticipate that our hospital system will be under some significant pressure for some many weeks,” he warned.
“If you look at the R number for intensive care admissions, there still remains an upward trajectory in terms of likely anticipated pressures, in terms of people requiring intensive care, beds and treatment.
“If we then consider the next steps, I think there are number of conditions that are important that we reflect upon.
“Firstly, what we need to see is sustained reduction in the levels of community transmission and that obviously just became harder with the emergence of the variant throughout the UK and Republic of Ireland and here in Northern Ireland.
“So what that means is we all have to work much harder to achieve the same effect and the restrictions that would have achieved significant impacts in terms of community transmission will not be as effective with the new variant in circulation and that’s something which we all must be mindful of.
“Those circumstances where the virus would not have transmitted before the virus now will transmit.”
He continued: “The second thing to bear in mind is that before we consider relaxation in current restrictions, we need to ensure that we have more of those people who are clinically extremely vulnerable protected by the vaccine.
“We are making very good progress, we have made a very good start, however we need to ensure we have as many people at risk of severe disease vaccinated with the first dose as possible before we consider significant relaxation in the current restrictions.
“The third element that is crucially important, we need sustained reduction in the pressures on our hospital system.
“Our hospitals are seeing pressures like they have never seen before at any stage during this pandemic.
“Our health service and those staff working in it are facing a very difficult time at present and will do over the next couple of weeks, and what we cannot allow to happen is to relax the current restrictions prematurely so you have increase again in community transmission and then we see the hospital system face a further wave of increased transmissions and increased pressures.”