Northern Ireland's chief medical officer has warned the public they will need to “work diligently” to make sure the Christmas holidays can be safe, but said it was likely to be “very different” for families this year.
Dr Michael McBride said the surge in the virus across the UK and Ireland was causing serious concern but was hopeful that localised restrictions in Northern Ireland would soon have an impact.
“If we do not see the current rate of community transmission coming under greater control than it is then obviously the Executive will have some difficult choices and difficult decisions in the weeks ahead,” he said at a press briefing on Tuesday.
Discussing the latest figures, Chief Scientific Officer Professor Ian Young said the average number of new cases a day was now well over 500, more than doubling in the last week.
He said community transmission remained the main cause, with Derry and Strabane now seeing over 600 cases per 100,000 while Newry, Mourne and Down was over 300.
Professor Young said it wasn’t possible to properly compare the current situation with the first outbreak in March, as most testing was being conducted in hospitals.
Hospital admissions, however, he said were slowly increasing in the same way.
In March he said this rate doubled every four days with an R number of around 2.8.
On Tuesday, the R rate remains around 1.8 with a hospital admissions doubling every seven or eight days.
On the use of a circuit breaker, Dr McBride said: “Do I feel that further restrictions are likely, I think they’re likely to be required but ultimately those are matters for the Executive.”
With many households across Northern Ireland already discussing the Christmas holidays, Dr McBride said it was likely some if not all of the current restrictions could still be in place.
“Christmas seems a very long time from now, I think it’s very important that none of us plan too far ahead,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"We can’t predict what the levels of community transmission are going to be over the Christmas period.
“I think it very much depends on the actions that we take in the next number of weeks. If we do see further restrictions introduced we may see community transmission fall to lower levels.
“I think it’s undoubtedly the case that we need to recognise that Christmas for many people is a special time of year and we do need to make some allowance for that.
“I think we do need to work very diligently to make sure that the Christmas period can be a safe period for families and the interactions that all we associate with that time of year.
“I think it’s very safe to say that Christmas will be very different from previous years because we still will have many of the restrictions in place that we currently have if not further restrictions at that time.”
He continued: “I think that the decisions that are made by the Executive over the coming weeks are going to impact significantly on what the level of community transmission is over the Christmas holidays and what degree of relaxation there can be at that time.”
Professor Young added: “I think Christmas is a really good example of a time when the societal benefits of allowing more interaction will be much greater.
“So while I think it’s likely that there will still be some restrictions in place at Christmas, I’m sure that we would wish to allow as much interaction as is possible safely at Christmas as can be achieved in the context of a very serious global epidemic.”
It comes after Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said further restrictions should be expected in Northern Ireland, with the Executive due to discuss the timing at this Thursday’s Executive meeting.