Northern Ireland’s health minister has said he would have liked stricter coronavirus restrictions in the region ahead of Christmas.
Robin Swann outlined misgivings about the lifting of the latest circuit-break lockdown, as shops and hospitality businesses reopened on Friday.
Mr Swann said a further tightening of restrictions would be needed in January in response to the anticipated rise in infections as a result of the festive season relaxations.
We need to work together to get through the next couple of weeks.— Michelle OâNeill (@moneillsf) December 10, 2020
Over the Christmas period, it is crucial that we are careful & act responsibly.
Our actions can help to protect our family & friends.
Follow the health guidelines - wear a face mask, social distance & wash hands pic.twitter.com/nGUwatq4S3
His comments came as First Minister Arlene Foster expressed concern that further restrictions may be required in January, and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill said she was “nervous” about the potential consequences of the relaxations.
As the circuit breaker lifted on Friday, Mr Swann accompanied Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill on a visit to a coronavirus contact tracing facility in Ballymena, Co Antrim.
Asked by the PA news agency whether he was content with the level of restrictions in place from Friday, the health minister said: “From a health point of view of course we would have liked to have seen, I suppose, stricter.
“But you know, we have to realise the time of the season we’re in and the fact that it is a five-party executive.
But I am content that there’s enough guidance out there if people follow them, follow the rules and regulations that we have actually set down, that we can keep this virus under control, we can stop the spread of Covid throughout our community in Northern IrelandHealth Minister Robin Swann
“But I am content that there’s enough guidance out there if people follow them, follow the rules and regulations that we have actually set down, that we can keep this virus under control, we can stop the spread of Covid throughout our community in Northern Ireland.”
Asked if Northern Ireland would be facing another period of intensified restrictions in the new year, he replied: “I would say at this point in time, yes, we will be.
“But how severe and how strict that is will depend on people’s actions over the next two to three weeks.”
Mrs Foster said she was concerned about the prospect of requiring further restrictions in January.
“Of course I’m concerned about that,” she told PA.
“And I’ve always said none of this is inevitable. It’s actually within people’s own hands.
“And I know that people like to get out and about at Christmas time and meet people and do the normal things.
“But, on this one occasion, we’re asking people to be really careful and try to keep safe.”
Ms O’Neill said she was concerned about what Northern Ireland might be facing in January after the lifting of several coronavirus restrictions on Friday.
Asked by PA if she was nervous about what the move might mean for the region in January, she replied: “To be completely honest, I am.
“I think we’ve tried to find a balanced way forward throughout the whole of the pandemic. It remains the case today that we know that everything we’re doing comes with risk.
“But I think that the public have the capacity to try to keep this in check, to keep the virus in check by limiting our movements, all of us collectively limiting their movements, being careful, being safe, following the public health advice, we have the capacity to actually try and keep this virus in check.”
Circuit breaker restrictions are ending & new regulations will be in place from tomorrow. But there are five things you still need to do:— nidirect (@nidirect) December 10, 2020
Keep your distance
Wear a face covering
Wash your hands
Limit your social contacts
Download StopCOVID NI
More info: https://t.co/96O0OLVFQR pic.twitter.com/rs7WqLAU82
The Public Health Agency is planning to increase test and trace capacity in the new year in anticipation of a rise in the number of cases due to the relaxation of restrictions.
Another 12 people have died with Covid-19, the Department of Health said on Friday.
An additional 538 people have tested positive.
Shops, close contact services and much of the hospitality sector resumed business on Friday.
They had been closed under lockdown measures aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus.
Cinemas, museums, galleries and gyms also reopened while normal church services resumed, with more people allowed to attend weddings and funerals.
However, pubs that do not serve food have remained closed.
Safety guidance for the reopening of hospitality businesses was published on Thursday.
A maximum six adults from no more than two households are allowed at a table. Closing time will be 11pm at the latest.
All outlets will be required to collect the details of each customer to assist with contact tracing.