Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer has ruled out cancelling school carol services even as efforts are ramped up to contain Covid-19.
As a range of measures are put in place to protect Northern Ireland from the potential threat posed by the new Omicron variant, Professor Sir Michael McBride said all steps must be “proportionate”.
And in a further message of hope after the Health Minister asked the public not to despair in light of the latest coronavirus mutation, the senior medic said: “All pandemics come to an end.”
Asked when this will happen, Sir Michael said: “Well, all pandemics come to an end when a sufficient number of the population are immune and preferably through vaccination.
“We are making huge strides, as I said — over three million doses of vaccine that hadn’t been invented this time last year, so let us be in no doubt, we are making progress.”
Sir Michael said it is not known how effective the current vaccines will be in relation to the Omicron variant but said “we have the capacity to modify the current vaccines” if required.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the impact of the new variant, Sir Michael said: “That’s why we’re taking this precautionary approach.
“You don’t get a chance to wind the clock back and it’s better to act on a precautionary basis until we learn more about this new variant of concern.
“It’s too early to say, I think it’s unlikely we will see full escape from the current vaccines, we may see the current vaccines partially less effective and let’s hope that impact is minimal.
“But if indeed we do see a very significant reduction then we do have the ability to develop a reworked vaccine.
“The most important thing, as the minister has said, if you haven’t had your first does, get your first dose of the vaccine, get your second dose, get your booster, when you’re eligible, continue doing the things like wearing a face covering, ventilating rooms, reducing your contacts.
“Let’s all do the things we know work and keep this virus under control.”
On Friday, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) wrote to the Education Minister asking her to ban a range of events, including Christmas carol services, school staff meetings, parent teacher meetings and open events for prospective pupils.
The letter, from Maxine Murphy-Higgins chair, Education Trade Union Group, ICTU, also asked Michelle McIlveen to allow all staff who were previously shielding to work from home.
Explaining the rationale for the request, Ms Murphy-Higgins said figures up to November 21 showed 1,072 school staff had contracted Covid-19 over the previous four weeks.
She continued: “Schools are under severe pressure to find cover staff. In this context it is important that all steps that can be taken to maintain education are taken.
“No-one wants to be seen to cancel Christmas but if strong measures are not taken schools will not be able to deliver face to face education for every child.”
Asked for his assessment on such measures, Sir Michael said: “I think we need to be very proportionate in terms of all the actions we advise at this time.
“I think all of us are very aware of the very negative impact the past two years has had on our children, not just on their education but their mental health and well-being, none of us wants to impact further.
“In terms of shielding, we no longer have shielding and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable have been and should have been vaccinated.
“I think we just need to be proportionate, yes, proceed with caution but at this stage I would not be suggesting that we take such action.
“But I think every event that is organised, whether it is a school setting or anywhere else, has to have a risk assessment so we can mitigate and reduce the risk of infection as best we can.”
Earlier, Robin Swann addressed the Assembly, outlining the official response to the Omicron variant and revealing it is likely already in Northern Ireland.
"In light of the cases identified in England and Scotland it is to be expected that there may already be cases of the variant in Northern Ireland,” he said.
"Until we know more about the characteristics of the new variant it is not acceptable to take the risk with the health of our people, and we need to take action urgently.”
New measures that have been put in place in response include a requirement for all arrivals into Northern Ireland from non-red list countries, including those who are fully vaccinated, to self-isolate for 10 days unless they receive a negative PCR test.
Government advisers have also recommended Covid booster jabs should be offered to all over-18s to help stop a potential wave driven by Omicron.
Mr Swann also called on his political colleagues to put on a united front in the face of the latest Covid-19 threat.
A number of DUP MLAs have been particularly vocal in their opposition to the use of domestic vaccine passports as part of the Covid-19 response.
Last week, Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said interventions should be “evidence-based, targeted and effective”.
He said: “Sadly the proposals for Covid passports are none of these things.”
The DUP was asked whether Mr Lyons has reviewed his position in light of the Omicron variant but did not respond to a request for comment.