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NI past coronavirus peak but more people flouting lockdown guidelines, warns Chief Scientific Officer

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Professor Ian Young

Professor Ian Young

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Health minister Robin Swann

Health minister Robin Swann

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

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Professor Ian Young

Northern Ireland's Chief Scientific Officer has warned that public adherence to lockdown measures is "declining slowly".

Speaking at Thursday's Stormont Covid-19 briefing, Professor Ian Young said the country had passed the peak in terms of case numbers, hospital admissions and intensive care unit bed occupancy.

However, he also stressed that the decline in the number of people becoming infected was very slow.

Health Minister Robin Swann, also appearing at the briefing, warned that social distancing would remain the norm for "months to come, even years".

Professor Young stressed that Northern Ireland was on a "knife edge", with the virus now infecting just under one additional person for every person it strikes down.

"It is now clear that while cases are falling, they are falling very slowly indeed," he explained.

It was also revealed at the briefing that a further nine people had died as a result of Covid-19, bringing the local death toll to 347.

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Another 73 have tested positive for the disease, bringing the total number of infected to 3,536.

The figures were announced as Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared the whole of the UK was officially past the peak of infections.

However, the UK death toll jumped by 674, bringing the total number of fatalities to 26,711 - a figure which also includes Covid-19 deaths recorded outside hospitals.

Mr Johnson praised the public for adhering to the Government's guidelines and said the UK was "past the peak and on the downward slope".

"It is thanks to that massive collective effort to shield the NHS that we avoided an uncontrollable and catastrophic epidemic, where the reasonable worst-case scenario was 500,000 deaths," the Prime Minister said at a press conference.

In the Republic, meanwhile, another 43 people with Covid-19 died, taking the total to 1,232, with 359 new confirmed cases also announced.

As police on both sides of the Irish border prepared to set up checkpoints to monitor people travelling ahead of the May Bank Holiday in the south, Professor Young acknowledged there were growing fears that the population was becoming complacent about following lockdown rules.

The lockdown takes a particular toll on the old and the young, the most vulnerable, the sick and the most deprived. It is those people that must remain at the forefront of all our minds when any possible adjustments are being proposed Robin Swann

Urging members of the public to not let their guard down, he said: "We are asking people to reflect on that, to reflect on where we are and understand the importance of the current measures. They are in place for a good reason."

Mr Swann said that until a vaccine was developed and made widely available, there would be no return to what a few months ago was normality.

"We are at a crucial juncture now in Northern Ireland," the Health Minister explained.

"Easing restrictions brings with it the potential for the virus to spread further, for more people to be infected and for more people to die.

"Sticking with an indefinite lockdown also brings serious costs to society and for individuals - and we have to acknowledge that.

"The lockdown takes a particular toll on the old and the young, the most vulnerable, the sick and the most deprived. It is those people that must remain at the forefront of all our minds when any possible adjustments are being proposed.

Social distancing will be part of our lives in some form for months to come, maybe even years Robin Swann

"That's why I say there are no pain-free or risk-free options."

Mr Swann said there would be no sudden easing of the restrictions.

"Social distancing will be part of our lives in some form for months to come, maybe even years," he added.

"Decisions cannot be rushed. They will have to be taken in line with the best expert advice."

Mr Swann would not be drawn on whether churches and garden centres should be allowed to reopen, after restrictions were lifted to allow grieving families to visit cemeteries.

Environment Minister Edwin Poots suggested on Wednesday that garden retailers and places of worship could be allowed to open their doors again.

However, Mr Swann said discussions around which rules should be relaxed first should be held around the Executive table and with the benefit of scientific and medical advice.

"Those (decisions) will be a collective responsibility," he told the daily briefing.

The Health Minister said the crisis should also lead to "lessons being learned" about the importance of the NHS.

"It (the pandemic) has underlined just how essential health and social care services are to this society," the former UUP leader added.

"We really need to look after them better."


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