More coronavirus restrictions before Christmas will “more likely than not” be recommended to Stormont, the chief scientific officer has said.
Professor Ian Young said a four-week circuit-break in Northern Ireland slowed the spread of the virus, but added that that decline is now slowing.
Echoing comments by Health Minister Robin Swann on Sunday, Prof Young said he felt it is more likely than not that further restrictions will be asked for before Christmas.
Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton has urged politicians to avoid speculation on further restrictions, which he described as “damaging to businesses”.
The Department of Health #COVID19 dashboard has been updated with latest data.— Department of Health (@healthdpt) November 16, 2020
331 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. Sadly, a further 14 deaths have been reported. https://t.co/YN16dmGzhv pic.twitter.com/y1tINAC8Jh
Prof Young and chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride supply evidence around the transmission of coronavirus to the Stormont Executive.
A decision over how to follow up the circuit-break led to four days of acrimonious exchanges between ministers last week.
The DUP pressed to reopen sections of the economy, while the other four parties wanted to see the circuit-break extended by two weeks before a compromise was reached.
“The restrictions that were put in place have had a significant downward effect in terms of the number of cases of the virus, and that is now slowing down and we’re seeing only a very slow decline at present,” Prof Young told the BBC.
“The number of patients who are in hospitals with Covid has fallen to even a lesser extent and that shows firstly that restrictions can have impact but as we’ve always said, the deeper the restrictions are, the longer and more severe the impact will be, so yes I agree with Minister Swann that I think it’s more likely than not that further restrictions will be asked for before Christmas.”
Speculation about extending lockdown or introducing further restrictions is damaging and demoralising for businesses and their staff. Whilst undoubtedly damaging to jobs, if the Executive want to change approach again then a prompt decision is preferable https://t.co/my71mmIiiN— Simon Hamilton (@SimonHamilton) November 16, 2020
Prof Young said these are “immensely difficult decisions” for ministers.
“I am confident that the Executive will seriously consider our advice, they will come to a decision and I know that the chief medical officer or myself will not hesitate to come back with further advice if we think that is necessary,” he said.
“We want people to be able to enjoy Christmas in a relatively normal way.
“Given that it’s in the context of the pandemic, I don’t think it can be in a completely normal way, but it’s an important time of year.
“Allowing people to interact more normally will carry risks, everybody will have to be clear about that, but it’s not something that we want to forbid, definitely not.”
Mr Hamilton said speculation by politicians over further restrictions has a “damaging and demoralising effect on business owners and staff who are already under immense stress”.
“It makes them worry about whether or not the new dates they’ve been told when they can reopen will actually happen. It makes it almost impossible to plan properly for reopening,” he said.
Allowing people to interact more normally will carry risks, everybody will have to be clear about thatProfessor Ian Young
“And it is resulting in bookings and appointments being cancelled, adding to the uncertainty and distress business owners and their staff are facing.
“These are people’s jobs. These are people’s livelihoods. They shouldn’t be a plaything for politicians. Our plea to ministers is to take decisions, stick to them and stop this constant speculation which serves no-one well.
“If the Executive is inclined to extend restrictions further based on their scientific and medical evidence, whilst this undoubtedly would damage jobs and livelihoods during what is the most important trading period of the year for many, it would be immeasurably better for such a decision to be taken promptly to avoid the debacle of last week and end this kind of unhelpful speculation.”
Meanwhile, Prof Young also said there is a “realistic possibility” that care home residents and health care staff could start receiving the Covid-19 vaccine before the end of the year.
“It’s not going to save us from the winter, it will play an important role in terms of our overall response, but I’m very hopeful that by next summer it’ll be fairly widespread,” he said.
The Executive took four days to agree on future restrictions last week.
A majority of ministers backed a proposal that saw the region’s four-week circuit-break lockdown extended by one week, followed by a phased reopening of hospitality businesses.
Mr Swann said he reluctantly voted for the compromise deal as ministers had “run out of time” and a failure to strike a deal would have resulted in all the restrictions on hospitality lapsing by default on Friday night.