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‘Highly unlikely’ NI lockdown restrictions will be eased after six weeks – Swann

The Stormont health minister said while the R number has fallen, that decrease needs to be maintained to take the pressure off the health service.

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An empty street in Belfast as Northern Ireland remains in an extended lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus and lower infection rates (/PA)

An empty street in Belfast as Northern Ireland remains in an extended lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus and lower infection rates (/PA)

An empty street in Belfast as Northern Ireland remains in an extended lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus and lower infection rates (/PA)

It is “highly unlikely” that coronavirus restrictions in Northern Ireland will be eased after the six-week lockdown ends, the Stormont health minister said.

Robin Swann said although the R number has dropped to 0.7, the number of cases and hospital inpatients with the virus remains high.

The Stormont Executive agreed the tough range of measures in December to start from Boxing Day until February 6.

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Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann (Liam McBurney/PA)

Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann (Liam McBurney/PA)

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Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Swann said with daily case and hospital numbers remaining high, the restrictions are likely to be required for longer.

The deaths of a further 26 people with Covid and 1,052 more positive cases of the virus were notified on Friday.

The weekly toll compiled by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) passed 2,000.

It provides a broader picture of the impact of Covid-19 than the death toll reported by Stormont’s Department of Health, which focuses primarily on hospital deaths and only includes people who have tested positive for the virus.

Mr Swann said: “We’re still looking at 1,000 positive cases, on average, per day. Those are high numbers.

“We’re still looking at massive numbers in our hospitals, over 840 people still in hospital. We are in the middle of our six-week lockdown, we said we’d review where we are on January 21, as to what steps we will take on February 6.

“R is coming down but it is coming down from a very high level of number of cases so that decrease has to be maintained for a long period of time, for I would say another two to three weeks before we can get those numbers of positive cases, before we can get the number of hospital admissions down so that we can really see the pressure starting to come off our hospitals and our health service.

“It will be highly unlikely that we will see any great easement of where we currently are. These conversations are being had by many governments across these islands, across the world, as to what steps we can take.”

He added in an interview with the BBC: “I wouldn’t want to say we will be in this format of this lockdown for another eight to 10 weeks, but will I say that we’ll go back to complete normality? No.”

Some 133,831 coronavirus vaccinations have now been administered in the region, of which 19,264 were second doses.

“How we come back out of this will be in a more graduated response to make sure we get the benefits of what we have already done and also the benefits of the vaccine,” Mr Swann said.

“I can’t stress enough the hope that comes with our vaccination programme, but let’s not lose the potential by being careless now.”

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Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride (Peter Morrison/PA)

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride (Peter Morrison/PA)

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Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride (Peter Morrison/PA)

Earlier, the chief medical officers from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland issued a joint stay-at-home plea.

Dr Michael McBride and Dr Tony Holohan say they are “gravely concerned” about the “unsustainably high level of Covid-19 infection” across the island.

The chief medical officers warned it is having a “significant impact” on the health of the population as well as the “safe functioning” of the healthcare systems.

Meanwhile, moves are under way to limit the number of MLAs attending the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Plenary business is to be limited to law-making to reduce the numbers using the building.

The number of question times involving ministers orally delivering answers to Assembly members is to fall from four to three a week.

Speaker Alex Maskey also said the political parties have agreed to facilitate remote participation in Assembly plenary sessions.

These have been normally held on Mondays and Tuesdays and in pre-coronavirus times would have brought many members on to the hill.

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