Visits to general medical wards at hospitals across Northern Ireland will be banned from this Friday.
Speaking at an Executive press conference this afternoon, Health Minister Robin Swann confirmed the move due to the continued prevalence of the virus within communities.
Mr Swann said visits will still be permitted "within hospices and care homes" and the measure will be “kept under constant review”.
The new visiting policy will be implemented from this Friday and the restrictions be kept under review.
Mr Swann said nobody should “underestimate the sheer challenge” faced by Northern Ireland’s healthcare staff on Covid wards who are working “under the strain of full PPE, knowing that for many patients, they may well be the last face that they see”.
He added that staff are “working well beyond their hours to support colleagues and stay with patients in their final hours”.
Mr Swann also urged people not to be distracted by the “small, but vocal minority who claim the Covid threat is an exaggeration”.
“They have been discredited. The facts are clear because their constant undermining is nothing but an insult to health and care workers,” he said.
“We need to look after them, not just now but for the years to come,” he said.
“We as a society will have to look after our health service better than we have in previous years.
“The health service is up against it right now and the pressures are without parallel.”
As of Wednesday morning there were 869 Covid-19 confirmed inpatients, 277 more than this time last week.
“That rate of growth is wholly unsustainable,” Mr Swann warned.
The Health Minister said that despite the pressures, those most in need of treatment would still get it but may have to travel to other locations in Northern Ireland.
Chief scientific adviser, Prof Ian Young, highlighted a rise in new cases as a result of households mixing over Christmas but said that in the past few days the number of cases had begun to fall.
However, Professor Young stressed that case numbers “remain at a very high level”.
He added: “Even now, as we see the numbers falling, getting lower, they remain at a higher level than any time during wave one or wave two of this epidemic.”
Professor Young said he believed the current peak still had some way to go.
Mr Swann also confirmed that 109,259 doses of Covid-19 vaccines had been administered in Northern Ireland as of Tuesday evening, with 91,419 people having received their first dose.
He said while the vaccine rollout has “a long way to go”, it has made a “strong start” and the availability of the vaccine is the only restrictive factor in its delivery.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride stressed that while vaccines are “undoubtedly a game changer”, they do not make the virus “disappear”
“The jab offers protection from Covid. It stops people getting ill or very ill and that means in time, as more people are vaccinated, the pressure on our health service will ease. That is vital and the breakthrough that we need.”
Dr McBride again warned that those who are vaccinated cannot then simply forget about coronavirus.
“It cannot be party time or time to through caution to the wind. People who are vaccinated have to keep taking all those measures that keep everyone one of us safe.”
Meanwhile a new rapid Covid-19 test will be rolled out in emergency departments across Northern Ireland over the coming week.
The LumiraDX nasal swab test “delivers results inside 12 minutes” which Mr Swann said would enable health staff to “very quickly identify patients who do not have Covid-19”.