More Covid restrictions not envisaged before Christmas, say Stormont leaders

·4-min read
The first cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in Northern Ireland (PA) (PA Archive)
The first cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in Northern Ireland (PA) (PA Archive)

Northern Ireland’s leaders have indicated they do not expect further Covid-19 restrictions to be introduced before Christmas

First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill were speaking separately on Wednesday following the first confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the region.

The Stormont Executive is expected to meet in the coming days but ministers have been in daily contact amid developments in the pandemic.

Mr Givan said confirmation of three cases of Omicron was not a surprise, and while he urged people to follow public health advice he said he does not believe further restrictions will be required before Christmas.

First Minister Paul Givan said the current rules ‘will be able to get us through Christmas’ (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Wire)
First Minister Paul Givan said the current rules ‘will be able to get us through Christmas’ (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Wire)

“I don’t envisage there being further restrictions before Christmas, the current measures that we have in place, if people follow that, that will be able to get us through the Christmas period,” he said.

Speaking separately in Londonderry, Ms O’Neill said she expects the Stormont Executive to meet in the coming days.

“We’re talking daily in terms of what’s happening as we see it unfolding,” she said.

“The chief medical officer has been clear in saying that it is about redoubling our efforts, it is about going back to the basics, it is about being vigilant.

“But if we have to look at additional areas in terms of what we need to do, then absolutely we’ll be following the health and scientific advice.”

Asked whether new restrictions will be introduced, Ms O’Neill said it is too early to say.

“I think that for now it is about redoubling our efforts, for now it is just about remaining cautious and people encouraging safe practices, but crucially the booster, that is essentially the most effective way to fight against this virus,” she said.

(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)

“If we have to look at additional measures, then that’s what we’ll have to do but as of today the chief medical officer’s advice, the health minister’s advice, is that what we’re doing is enough but we need again to ask the public to be vigilant and to get the vaccine, if you haven’t already got it, and if you have got it, also get the booster.”

Chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride said it is too early to tell how Omicron may affect restrictions.

Sir Michael was speaking after the Republic of Ireland brought back some restrictions for the hospitality sector.

He said there are currently 10% of hospital beds in Northern Ireland taken up with Covid-19 patients whereas last November it was 15%.

“The pressures in the Republic of Ireland are different again and they need to make decisions based on the evidence they see, but also on the pressures in their health system at this present moment in time,” he told the BBC.

Sir Michael said he expects to see a “rapid increase” in cases of the Covid-19 Omicron variant before Christmas.

Measures are being taken to try to delay community transmission of the variant, he said, but that is “absolutely inevitable”.

He told the BBC’s Stephen Nolan Show: “I think it is absolutely the case that we have more cases in Northern Ireland at present than we have currently detected given the fact that we have community transmission in other parts of these islands, given the freedom of movement of people in these islands which is really important for so many reasons.

“I think what we will see is a rapid increase in the number of cases identified in the coming days in the run up to the Christmas period.

“What appears to be happening is this virus is getting established very, very quickly in communities where the Delta variant has already been established and it may be the case that in the next period of time that we see this new Omicron variant replacing the Delta variant as the dominant variant in the United Kingdom, in these islands and indeed eventually globally.”

Sir Michael said it is still not known with certainty how likely people are to be infected with Omicron if they have been vaccinated.

He urged people to follow public health advice to attempt to delay the onset of community transmission of the variant for as long as possible.

Two of the confirmed cases of Omicron have been described as within the same household in the greater Belfast area while the third unconnected case was discovered in the South Eastern Trust area.

All the cases are linked with travel from Britain.

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