Allowing people across Northern Ireland to mix at Christmas was not worth the resulting devastation wreaked on the health service, Robin Swann has said.
The Health Minister has given the assessment as he warned some cancer patients will have worse outcomes as result of their operations being cancelled as the health service responds to the huge surge in Covid-19 patients.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, as he marked one year as Health Minister, Mr Swann paid tribute to the thousands of staff who are propping up the NHS as it buckles under the pressure of the pandemic.
But he refused to say whether he supports calls for a 12.5% pay rise for nurses - insisting that it is a matter for Westminster and he cannot break from pay parity with England.
He also poured cold water on hopes that the hospitality and retail sectors will be allowed to reopen on February 6.
Northern Ireland is currently in the grip of a third deadly wave of Covid-19, which has seen some hospitals overrun with seriously ill patients.
The situation has become so severe that health trusts have been forced to cancel a range of planned surgeries due to a lack of beds and staff.
Figures released by the Health & Social Care Board on Wednesday have revealed that this resulted in more than 100 operations for people with suspected cancer being cancelled.
According to the statistics, 351 elective procedures were cancelled between January 5 to 11 - 7% of all planned surgery for the week. Of these, 106 were red flag cases.
Mr Swann was asked whether there will be worse outcomes for some cancer patients whose surgery has been delayed.
He said: "There will be, it is not an easy decision that we have taken, it is not an easy decision that the clinicians have taken either.
"It is about getting those services back up and running, that is why we have engaged with the independent sector as well, to make sure we can utilise their capacity as well as what little we have of our own."
The UUP minister said he cannot provide a timescale for red flag surgery to be rescheduled, but that he hopes this will happen within a matter of weeks.
The chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser have both said the spike in Covid-19 cases has come about as a direct result of mixing of people over the festive period.
Mr Swann said the decision to relax restrictions for one day over Christmas was taken by the Executive in recognition of the challenges faced by the public in 2020.
"If you remember we were actually looking at that point at the rest of the UK and talking about five days of a relaxation," he said.
"The Executive took a very hard decision to actually narrow that down to one day to be transferable for people working on Christmas Day, with a very heavy introduction of regulations on Boxing Day.
"The decisions around Christmastime, we had been through a hard year and it was about giving people some structure that they could actually meet up."
Asked if he now believes it was worth the resulting spike in Covid-19 cases and the pressure on the health service which has led to cancelled cancer operations, he said: "I think everything is fine in hindsight, if I thought we would have really been where we are today - which is at the higher area of all our modellings - I would say probably not, no."
The cancellation of hundreds of operations is the latest crisis to hit the health service since Mr Swann took up the post one year ago.
He said the fact that his son, Evan, underwent lifesaving cardiac surgery after he was born with a heart defect, played an important part in his decision to accept the role.
"I suppose for me, the opportunity to take on this job, as a family we owe an awful lot to the health service in Northern Ireland with regards to, especially the support through Evan and all the rest of it, all the work that he went through," he explained.
"So, to be able to give something back was, I suppose, that opportunity I couldn't say no to."
At that time, he believed that addressing hospital waiting lists would be the most complex problem he would face. However, within a matter of weeks, Covid-19 began to spread towards Europe and his attention turned to managing the pandemic.
The minister said there has been no single worst moment over the past 12-months - instead this comes on a daily basis when he receives a Covid-19 update.
He continued: "It's nearly a daily occurrence, it's that PDF file that comes through about 11 o'clock in the morning that comes in with the number of cases and the number of people who have lost their lives due to Covid.
"So that still hits me the same every day as it did the first day, that first day where we had a death from Covid in Northern Ireland. At that point we were wondering, how many weeks is this going to last for? There was never an expectation at that point that nearly a year later we would still be fighting Covid."
So, what is his assessment of the situation in which Northern Ireland now finds itself?
"I suppose with regards to loss of lives, it still goes back to that first briefing we got and it was a Cobra meeting as well when the estimation came through, when the realisation came across the rest of the world what Covid was going to mean," he said.
"They were looking at an 80% infection rate and a 1% mortality and at that stage, doing a rough calculation we were looking at 15,000 deaths in Northern Ireland, so where we are now is a far better place than we could have been had we taken no actions at all. Did I still think we would be sitting here in January with more people in hospital than we have ever had? No.
"Going back during the summer, when we got down to those low numbers there was that hope we could manage this an awful lot better, but with different variants and just the challenges that all our restrictions brought, we are in a place now which isn't good, not good for us, not good for Northern Ireland.
"But we're starting to see that decrease in cases, we will still see that increase in hospitalisations over the next few weeks and unfortunately more deaths."
Mr Swann said the Executive still intends to review the current restrictions on January 21, but he sounded a note of caution that the lockdown will last for just six weeks.
"We have said in the past, the balance between being able to open up hospitality and retail to the full extent and schools is not just doable and it won't be doable in February either," he said.
"It will be a step-by-step approach."
However, he stressed that reopening schools remains the priority for the Executive.
Commenting on calls for a 12.5% pay rise for nurses, Mr Swann would not be drawn on whether he supports the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) campaign. He also would not say whether he would be willing to recommend the pay hike to his Executive colleagues.
"It's about recognising and valuing the work they do because it is more than just clapping for them, we have done that and I think the Executive has shown that commitment," he said.
Responding to the possibility that a failure to meet RCN demands could result in nurses returning to the picket line, he said: "I will do my damndest to make sure they don't go back there.
"With regards to where the health service is at this point in time, this time last year we were just working our way out of industrial action, something we had never seen before in the health service in Northern Ireland, something that was unprecedented, that our nurses and our healthcare workers had actually went to that stage.
"This time last year, I was looking at waiting lists thinking this is going to be an insurmountable challenge to get on top of these waiting lists, but never imagining, never contemplating, that we would be in the middle of a pandemic at the same time, that waiting lists would actually get worse rather than getting better."
Speaking about hospital waiting lists, Mr Swann said it is unacceptable that any patient should wait up to five years for a first outpatient appointment.
He said the public should expect changes to the way care is delivered in future as efforts are rolled out to drive down waiting times, but he stopped short of stating there are too many acute hospitals in Northern Ireland.
He acknowledged that making changes to the health service in Northern Ireland may be controversial but it will follow a year where he has already faced criticism over the official response to the pandemic.
So, given everything that he has endured over the past 12 months, does he regret his decision to accept the job of Health Minister?
"No, definitely not," he said.