Covid-19 restrictions are likely to remain in place this time next year, Northern Ireland's top doctor has warned.
Dr Michael McBride, the chief medical officer, has said while restrictions will not be fully lifted until 2022, he hopes this summer will bring some respite from the current lockdown.
However, he said it is likely that a range of restrictions will return in the autumn and remain in place into 2022.
The Executive decided on January 21 that it would extend the current lockdown until March 5 and ministers are due to review the situation on February 18. But now Dr McBride has poured cold water on hopes that schools and the economy will be able to reopen next month.
Speaking at the Department of Health's weekly briefing yesterday afternoon, he said: "I suspect that we will require some degree of the current restrictions, certainly for the rest of this year, probably enhanced again in the autumn and winter of this year, and I think it will probably be into the following year before we see things a little more normal.
"In the meantime, I hope that this summer will be a little bit like last summer. Hopefully we will be able to do some of the things that we thought were a wonderful thing to do last summer."
Describing the new more infectious strain of Covid-19 as a "highly tuned sports car" compared to the "Ford Fiesta" older version, he also stressed that any relaxation of restrictions should be done on a gradual basis to allow experts to monitor the effects of removing measures on infection rates.
It could take nine months before restrictions are fully lifted, he said.
"If we were to relax the current restrictions at this point in time, we would have another resurgence and we would have another wave, probably greater than the wave we have just gone through," he explained.
"We cannot assume at this point in time that enough people have been vaccinated and our hospital system is not where it needs to be. We know the impact it's having on other services for treatment and care, despite the best efforts of us all to put in place alternative arrangements.
"So, absolutely if we were to relax quickly or rapidly the current restrictions, we would have another wave without any shadow of a doubt.
"That is why I would urge that any decision about relaxation of the current restrictions is gradual and that it's delayed, that it's delayed for as long as we can to ensure we can keep community transmission at low levels and obviously the lower the level of transmission, the further it has to climb back up again and then that will also do two things.
"It will allow some of the pressure to ease on our health service and it will also allow us time to ensure those people who are most at risk are vaccinated."
The daily case rate here has continued to drop, with 275 new cases recorded yesterday and 10 more deaths, but pressure in hospitals remains high, with 582 Covid-19 inpatients, 60 of which were in critical care.
Dr McBride said he would want between 70% and 80% of the population fully vaccinated - meaning they have had both doses of the vaccine - before restrictions can be fully lifted.
Currently, 22% of adults in Northern Ireland have received a first dose of the vaccine.
At yesterday's briefing, Patricia Donnelly, who is heading up the Department of Health's vaccination programme, said the uptake of the vaccine by people aged between 65 and 70 has not been as high as expected.
Meanwhile, Dr McBride warned he cannot predict the effect opening schools will have on the infection rate in Northern Ireland: "We do not have experience of relaxing restrictions with this new variant.
"My advice is that we need to get community transmission down as far as possible for as long as possible and more people protected by vaccination before we consider a full return of schools, but again those are matters for the Executive.
"It will have a greater impact on R than it had before because the new variant is out there and is much more transmissible."