Northern Ireland’s First Minister has expressed hope the Stormont Executive will be able to announce coronavirus rule relaxations when it meets next week.
Paul Givan was commenting after ministers received an update on Covid-19 data from health officials at Thursday’s meeting of the Executive.
While the data confirmed that the Omicron wave has not transpired to be as severe as first feared, the update came on a day when 14 further Covid-19 linked deaths were announced in the region.
Mr Givan said the most recent modelling information on the virus was “very encouraging”.
“We believe that we’re at the peak now in terms of the transmission rates within the community and we’re looking at the admission rates within our hospitals and they are starting to decline already and so the modelling that we’re following now is a very optimistic scenario,” he said.
“We don’t believe there will be a breach of over 500 people being admitted into our hospitals.”
On December 22, Stormont ministers announced a series of restrictions on the hospitality sector, including the closure of nightclubs from Boxing Day onward.
Mr Givan said the latest data presented a “much better picture” than what had been anticipated just before decisions to introduce new restrictions were taken prior the Christmas.
“That gives the Executive now more headroom to develop how we can reduce measures in the coming weeks, and so work will now take place for the Executive to consider next week what measures we could look at trying to remove that had been brought in, to get us back to at least the pre-23 December position as soon as possible within the prevailing environment that we’re operating in,” he said.
He added: “Certainly the data today is very encouraging and should allow ministers to take decisions next week to try and have some of the relaxations brought back in.”
Mr Givan said the latest data indicated that Covid-19-related staff absences across a number of sectors had “stabilised”.
“So this was an encouraging update,” the DUP MLA added.
“It’s showing that the effort the public have made is working, it’s also showing that the vaccination programme has been very successful.
“But also intrinsic within this new variant in terms of Omicron, it is less severe in and of itself compared to Delta.
“So those factors coming together has provided a much more encouraging picture for the Executive at today’s meeting.
“But obviously people still need to follow the public health advice.
“I know today we have quite a significant number of people who have sadly passed away and so it is something that we need to continue to keep our guard up about.”
Sinn Fein Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said Covid restrictions would not be kept longer than needed.
“I know from a Sinn Fein point of view, we will always be led by the health and medical advice and we will have to see what the situation is in a week again,” she said.
“That is why we are going to be meeting again next week to assess the situation.
“We have said we will not keep restrictions longer than we need to, but that has to be set against the health advice on where we are.”
Ms Hargey cautioned that any easing of Covid restrictions could lead to a spike in cases of the virus.
“We are unfortunately still seeing members of the public passing away as a result of the virus and our hospitals under pressure,” she said.
“Whilst there is no need at this moment to introduce any further restrictions, we will be keeping those restrictions under review and indeed the Executive will be meeting again next week in terms of assessing where we are and we will continue to keep it under close observation in the time ahead.
“I think at the moment the pandemic is still very much here. We are in the midst of the peak and we want to see that drive down.
“Any easements at this point could potentially see a sharp spike again and that is something that we don’t want to do. We want to make sure that the peak is as short as possible.
“That is why the restrictions are still in place but we are keeping them under constant review.”
The First Minister also indicated his support for a move from seven to five days for the Covid-19 isolation period in Northern Ireland after UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced the move for England.
Mr Givan stressed the decision rested with Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann.
“We have to recognise the kind of proportionate, balanced risk decisions that we have to take and, on that one on self-isolation policy, if there’s movement from seven days to five, which we’ve already seen in other parts of the world, then I think Northern Ireland should also be moving in that direction as well,” he said.
“But that, ultimately, sits with Robin Swann to take that decision.
“It’s not an Executive-wide decision.”
Mr Swann expressed his “deep sadness” for the families of the 14 people whose Covid-19-related deaths were reported on Thursday.
“These tragic losses once again underline the reality that the virus still represents a very serious threat to our population,” he said.
“We have undoubtedly made progress in pushing down Omicron numbers, thanks to the efforts everyone has made and the rapid rollout of vaccine boosters.
“However, we must never lose sight of the fact that Covid-19 can still cause devastation to families and communities.
“Please do all you can to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Even if you think the risk to you from infection may be relatively low, you could still pass it on to someone who is very vulnerable.
“I would again appeal for more people to come forward for their boosters without delay.
“If you are not yet vaccinated, please get your jab.
“Boosters and first and second doses are widely available across Northern Ireland.”
As well as the 14 deaths, another 2,980 confirmed cases of virus were also reported on Thursday.
On Thursday morning, there were 424 Covid-positive patients in hospital in Northern Ireland, with 28 in intensive care.