The coming weeks of the Covid-19 response have the potential to be more dangerous than the height of the pandemic, it has been claimed.
Dr Tom Black has warned that people who are shielding must continue to take special precautions once the strict rules are relaxed at the end of next month.
Health Minister Robin Swann has announced plans to pause the shielding advice that was issued to people ahead of the Covid-19 peak in Northern Ireland from July 31.
It is hoped that the amount of virus circulating in the community in Northern Ireland will continue to drop over the next six weeks, enabling people who are shielding to leave their homes more readily.
However, Dr Black, chair of the British Medical Association Council in Northern Ireland, warned that the virus will remain a serious threat to people who are currently shielding.
"There is a lower risk of transmission at the moment because fewer people have the virus," he explained.
"But there's still a risk of getting the virus and the risk of a person who is shielding becoming seriously ill is still the same and that isn't going to change.
"I think it will come down to an individual assessment in general terms so we would still encourage shielders to socially distance, wash their hands frequently and wear face coverings."
Announcing earlier this week the planned relaxation in advice for people who are shielding, Mr Swann acknowledged the anxiety many will feel about the changes.
He urged the public to be sympathetic towards people who have been shielding since March as the strict lockdown measures are lifted.
"We should all continue to social distance, but in the coming weeks I want you to be particularly understanding of the fact you might be encountering someone who has had to stay at home for many weeks," he said.
"Please be aware of this, show respect and kindness to all and keep your distance."
However, there are concerns that employers may put pressure on workers to return to high-risk roles once the shielding period comes to an end, particularly in light of reports that some employers were not sympathetic to shielders when the virus was rife in Northern Ireland.
Dr Black stressed that employers must take steps to protect workers who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.
The fact is we were trying to reduce the risk to people as low as possible, right down to zero if possible. That is fairly easy to achieve if you are staying at home and not coming into contact with anyoneDr Tom Black
"Employers have a legal responsibility, to be quite frank, and they won't want to be doing anything that puts employees at risk," he said.
"Anyone who has any concerns should speak to HR or occupational health to ascertain what roles are suitable if they have been shielding.
"The fact is we were trying to reduce the risk to people as low as possible, right down to zero if possible. That is fairly easy to achieve if you are staying at home and not coming into contact with anyone.
"This all means that the risk of transmission should be lower, but as our behaviours change and people aren't as careful as they have been, the risk starts to increase again, and in many ways we are going into a more dangerous phase."
Dr Black also said people who are shielding face an uncertain future.
"It is no longer black and white," he said.
He said it is crucial that the R number is assessed at local levels to inform people who are particularly vulnerable to the virus to make an assessment about what precautions they need to take.
He said ensuring hotspots are quickly identified will prevent Northern Ireland-wide lockdowns for shielders, but warned it is likely that some people who are currently shielding may be advised to resume the strict lockdown for periods in future.
"Families of shielders will have to be flexible about their living arrangements," he said.
"You might have a parent who has been shielding and in order for their children to remain at school during an outbreak in the locality, the children will have to go and stay elsewhere for the duration of the outbreak.
"I think we are going to have to work with problems and solve them as they come along."
Earlier this month, the Stormont health committee heard from some members who said they had been contacted by constituents who were shielding to say they were coming under pressure from their employers to return to work.
"I'm starting to get people who've got shielding letters and their employers are actually starting to ask them when are they coming back to work, so obviously that's a bit of a worry because we're really not out of this pandemic yet," said DUP MLA Alex Easton.
A second set of shielding letters is being delivered to people across Northern Ireland advising them of limited relaxations, but further guidance is due to be posted in the coming weeks.