Further coronavirus restrictions look necessary in Northern Ireland – with the Stormont executive facing several tough decisions, Michelle O’Neill has warned.
The deputy First Minister stressed the need to explain the rationale for further measures as Stormont’s chief scientific adviser said it was “almost inevitable” the Covid-19 death rate would rise in the coming weeks.
Professor Ian Young said all indicators of the virus’s prevalence in the region were moving in the “wrong direction”, albeit on a “slower trajectory” than was witnessed when the first wave hit in March.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said further restrictions were now more likely than not.
A further 669 new cases of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were announced on Tuesday.
Some 4,005 cases have been reported in the last seven days, bringing the overall total number of cases confirmed in the region to 15,359.
One further death was reported by the Department of Health, bringing the toll to 585.
In the Derry and Strabane Council area, where a series of additional localised restrictions are in place, the infection rate continues to rise and reached a seven-day average of 581 per 100,000 on Tuesday.
In another area of concern – Newry, Mourne and Down – the rate rose to 320 per 100,000.
Ms O’Neill said the rising infection numbers were “very alarming”.
“We have tough decisions to take as an Executive in the coming weeks and months and I think all options need to be on the table because this is ultimately about how we protect our frontline health care workers, it’s ultimately about how do we keep our children in schools, it’s ultimately about how we are saving lives as we move through the pandemic,” she said.
Executive ministers are due to meet on Thursday to discuss whether the time has come for further restrictions to be introduced.
Ministers have previously raised the prospect of a short intensive lockdown – a so-called “circuit breaker” – being required to halt the spread of the virus.
Addressing the media at Stormont, Ms O’Neill said: “I want to avoid a circuit breaker, we want to avoid additional restrictions but unfortunately it appears that they are going to be necessary and as for the timing of when, that will be discussed on Thursday and we’ll hopefully be able to say a lot more about it after that.”
Professor Young said hospital admission numbers were doubling every seven days.
He said the rate was every four days when the first lockdown was ordered in March.
The executive’s chief scientific adviser said the current reproduction number in Northern Ireland – the average number of people an infected person infects – stood at 1.4. He said it was 2.8 in March.
“It’s a somewhat slower trajectory than in March but heading in the same direction for every aspect of the epidemic,” he said.
Dr McBride added: “It is a slower trajectory, but we will still end up at the same point, it just will take us longer to get there.”
The CMO said Northern Ireland could reach 300 Covid-19 inpatients a day – the rate back in March – within the “next couple of weeks”.
Professor Young said the region was currently in a lag period before which increased hospital admission rates would be followed by increased deaths.
“It’s almost inevitable that, as hospital admissions increase, as patients in ICU increase, which we’re seeing now, unfortunately and sadly the number of deaths will increase as well,” he said.
Prof Young said public compliance with coronavirus regulations and guidance would help minimise the extent to which the death rate rises.
Dr McBride said he believed further restrictions in Northern Ireland were likely, but stressed the decision was ultimately for the executive to take.
Asked if another lockdown could be avoided, the CMO said several factors were working against the region, including anticipated higher levels of transmission during the autumn and winter months.
“I think that it is increasingly likely, and more likely than not that further restrictions will be required over the autumn and winter to get us through to the spring,” he said.
Dr McBride added: “I think we face a very difficult and challenging next few weeks, and a very difficult autumn and winter.”
Prof Young said Northern Ireland was not yet at the point where the executive introduced a lockdown in March.
“At present we have a significantly lower number of Covid inpatients than was the case when the executive decided to move to a lockdown and, in addition, the rate of increase is significantly lower than it was in March, so probably only about half the rate of increase as it was in March,” he said.
“So, we’re still significantly short of the point where the executive decided to move to a complete shutdown in March.”
During a weekly media briefing, Dr McBride was also asked to response to US President Donald Trump’s comments that people should not be afraid of Covid-19.
He replied: “I suppose I’m relieved that the executive takes its public health advice from the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser and not from Donald Trump.”