Northern Ireland is on a “knife edge” in efforts to suppress the coronavirus peak, a top Stormont scientist has warned.
Professor Ian Young, the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Health, said a slight slippage in public adherence to social distancing measures could be the difference between the death rate falling or continuing to rise.
His comments came as the region recorded its highest daily death toll in the outbreak to date.
The deaths of 18 people with Covid-19 in Northern Ireland hospitals brought the total in the pandemic to 158.
Health Minister Robin Swann said the figures should serve as a “grim wake-up call” to anyone who was becoming complacent.
At the daily Covid-19 press briefing at Stormont, the minister addressed concerns about the inability of family members to be with their loved ones in their final moments.
Mr Swann said advice from clinicians indicated that allowing visitor access to intensive care units presented “too significant a risk”.
However, he said he had requested the Northern Ireland Critical Care Network to review the issue.
Prof Young said modelling analysis suggested Northern Ireland was either at or very close to the peak of the first wave of the infection.
He said the fact it had not been as bad as some earlier models had suggested was down to the high level of public adherence to social distancing rules.
“It is possible that we might continue to see a rise in deaths for another week or so,” he said.
“And today’s very sad news in terms of deaths and bereaved families is in keeping with that.
Today's report should be a grim wake-up call to anyone who is getting complacent about what we are going throughRobin Swann
“The fact that we have reached the peak now and that it is perhaps not as bad as previously anticipated is a tribute to the relatively high degree of adherence on the part of all of the public to the social distancing measures which are in place.
“Nonetheless, I need to stress that this is very much on a knife edge at present. It’s absolutely vital that people continue to adhere strictly to the measures which are currently in place, even a relatively small departure from that would be enough for us to see an increase in Covid again.
“It’s very important that we suppress this wave one of the epidemic as much as possible in order to allow us to move forward and make decisions about how best to respond to the next wave.”
The scientist said ministers faced some very difficult decisions on how to manage social distancing restrictions until a point that sufficient immunity existed within the population.
He said relaxing measures around the shielding of older people and those in high-risk groups would present the “highest risk”.
“Any decision to relax shielding would come with the highest risk in terms of pressure on the health and social care system and also the highest risk for the individuals who are currently shielded,” he said.
Mr Swann extended his condolences to the latest families bereaved by the virus.
“Today’s report should be a grim wake-up call to anyone who is getting complacent about what we are going through,” he said.
Your commitment to saving lives has made a differenceDr Michael McBride
He said there were currently 45 patients with Covid-19 in ICU beds in Northern Ireland and there were 105 new hospital admissions in the region on Wednesday – the largest number of the week.
“We are in the midst of the biggest public health crisis in the history of Northern Ireland,” Mr Swann said.
“We are living through scenes that only three months ago would be wholly unimaginable. We must realise that we are in the fight against this virus for the long haul.”
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said compliance with social distancing had been “astounding”.
“Your commitment to saving lives has made a difference,” he told the public.
“And you’ve ensured that our health service has been able to cope, has been able to provide the best care to those that need it. We have some very difficult and challenging weeks ahead, we don’t yet know how long the peak of the pandemic will last here in Northern Ireland. So we need to continue to do what we’re doing to protect each other and to protect our health service.”
Both Dr McBride and Prof Young acknowledged that the impact of coronavirus in Northern Ireland had not been as severe as in other parts of the UK.
Dr McBride said there had been a “noticeable difference”.
“It is fair to say that the virus and the spread of the virus and the epidemic is again more similar to that in the Republic of Ireland compared to some parts of the United Kingdom and indeed some parts of Europe more generally,” he said.
Prof Young cited a number of potential factors, including population density, age distribution of the population and high social distancing compliance in the region.
He added: “I think from a modelling perspective, we intervened at a somewhat earlier stage of the epidemic than was the case in the rest of the UK.”
Earlier on Thursday, First Minister Arlene Foster said emerging from the coronavirus lockdown would be a step-by-step process.
She said while the current distancing measures would remain in place for at least another three weeks, the ramifications of Covid-19 could continue for months or years to come.
The First Minister said plans for recovery are being made but warned it will not start with a “total reopening”.
“The lockdown will continue for another three weeks but I think what people want to see us doing now is to plan for recovery and that of course is the next stage in the process,” she told the BBC.
“It’ll not just be a total reopening again because that would be wrong, because what we want to do is to ensure that we minimise and continue to mitigate the coronavirus.
“We have been advised by our chief medical officer that there is the very strong probability of a second surge and therefore we want to make sure we contain that in the way we have been able to contain what is with us at present.”
She added: “Social distancing will be with us for a long time, it is the case that we are going to have to deal with the ramifications of Covid-19 certainly from a health and economic point of view for many, many months, possibly years to come.”