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Northern Ireland could remain in lockdown until July, claims viral expert

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PSNI officers on foot patrol in Belfast City Centre on Wednesday April 1st, 2020. Photo Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press

PSNI officers on foot patrol in Belfast City Centre on Wednesday April 1st, 2020. Photo Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press

PSNI officers on foot patrol in Belfast City Centre on Wednesday April 1st, 2020. Photo Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press

Northern Ireland may have to remain in lockdown until July, according to a Northern Ireland expert in viral epidemics.

However, Dr Michael Donnelly said removing social isolation measures slowly and carefully could potentially stop a second surge of the deadly virus.

Dr Donnelly, a clinical epidemiologist, said it is imperative that people across Northern Ireland are not complacent when it comes to reducing the spread of coronavirus.

He was speaking as figures released on Sunday revealed one further person has died from Covid-19, bringing to 194 the number of people here who have lost their lives during the pandemic.

"There is still very much we don't know about this virus," said Dr Donnelly.

"There are some people who will become infected who get a temperature and a slight cough and there are other people who it will kill.

"We still don't have effective treatments, we can give patients paracetamol and oxygen, but we're finding out that ventilators that we had pinned so much hope on might not be as effective as we first thought.

"Research has shown that 43% of patients who are ventilated end up dying.

"There are going to be significant measures in place for some time yet, it's important that we don't jump the gun. There will be a very high price to pay if we get it wrong.

"We're already looking at what has gone wrong, but I would say the biggest mistake that has been made has been to not take this virus seriously enough.

"This isn't a rehearsal, this is real and people are dying. We are beginning to see less people dying, but that doesn't mean we can relax.

"It might be inconvenient to have to stay at home, but the choice is very simple. If sitting in the house for a few weeks is the price you have to pay to stay alive, it seems to me to be a fairly good price. You will have the rest of your life to make up for isolating now."

While statistics released by the Public Health Agency on Sunday show 194 people in Northern Ireland have now died, the total death toll is likely to be significantly higher.

This follows the publication of new figures on Friday, showing Covid-19 deaths were a third higher than originally reported.

Another 159 people have tested positive for the virus, bringing the total to 2,645, with a total of 16,490 individuals tested.

Dr Donnelly said he believes increasing the number of people being tested for the virus, as well as establishing who has immunity, will play a crucial role in lifting lockdown measures.

He said officials should use antigen and antibody tests that have already been developed, despite concerns about their effectiveness.

"We don't have the luxury of time to make sure they are perfect," he said.

"We have to use what is available to us now." However, he stressed it is vital that a vaccine is safe to use.

"If we are rolling this out to millions of people we don't want to find out that it is harmful," he said.

Despite this, he said he is optimistic that a vaccine can be found before the end of the year.

Although he warned that it may have to be altered each year, similarly to the influenza vaccination.

He continued: "If we open everything up gradually, we can stop a second wave.

"I would like to think we will be through this by the first week in July and similarly I would like to think that people who are shielding will also be able to begin to return to normal.

"The key to this is testing who has the virus and establishing who has had the virus and has some immunity, but it is important that we remove social distancing measures slowly."

Officials are coming under increasing pressure to reveal their exit strategy once the predicted surge is over, amid claims the Cabinet is split over whether to risk more deaths to save the plunging economy.

Speaking at the daily briefing in London on Sunday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson dismissed calls to spell out the exit strategy from coronavirus lockdown - despite claims ministers in England want schools to reopen after May 11.

Mr Williamson told the daily Downing Street briefing he was sorry that children were having to suffer through the crisis but would not give a date for a return of schools.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has not responded to a similar query over when schools here may reopen, or whether it has ruled out the possibility of pupils returning to classrooms before September.

Belfast Telegraph