Stormont’s health minister is to recommend the introduction of further coronavirus restrictions in Northern Ireland.
Robin Swann said it would be “inconceivable” that the powersharing Executive will not move to announce fresh measures after ministers meet on Thursday.
Mr Swann comments came as Northern Ireland recorded its highest number of infections in a 24-hour period – 424 – since the region’s testing regime was expanded.
Another death was also reported on Wednesday, taking the toll recorded by the Department of Health to 579.
The minister said while a two-week full lockdown – a so-called circuit breaker – would not be introduced on Thursday, he raised the prospect of such a move over the Halloween mid-term break, or potentially even earlier.
“We are now looking at a severe crisis full in the face,” he said.
“I can’t put this in any more stark terms – a crisis for our health and social care service and for many victims of Covid-19.”
Mr Swann added: “I am now more concerned about what lies ahead in the next few months than I have been since becoming health minister.”
Households currently cannot meet indoors in Northern Ireland while outdoor social gatherings are limited to six people from no more than two households.
An 11pm curfew on pubs and restaurant closing will come into effect on Thursday.
The Department of Health #COVID19 dashboard has been updated with latest data.
— Department of Health (@healthdpt) September 30, 2020
Mr Swann hinted that further restrictions could include added limitations on the hospitality sector, on family and community interactions and on individual travel.
He said the places where the wearing of face coverings was mandatory may be expanded.
“I believe we are now at that moment where further action is necessary to combat the spread of coronavirus,” said the minister.
“Those conversations will happen in the Executive tomorrow and we will have to decide what new restrictions to apply and should they be to the whole of Northern Ireland or on a more localised basis in areas where cases are particularly high.”
The Derry City and Strabane council area of Northern Ireland has one of the highest infection rates of anywhere in the UK – with more than 300 infections per 100,000 people.
“I think it’s inevitable that there will be additional measures put in place in that area,” said Mr Swann during a media briefing at Stormont.
On the need for a circuit-break full lockdown, Mr Swann said: “We are aware other parts of the United Kingdom will be looking at that as an option and it’s something that we have not taken off the table.”
He said the region was not at the point where such a move would be required immediately.
But asked if one could be introduced at Halloween, he replied: “I think one of the things that we have been clear is that we want to maintain our schools and keeping them open.
“So if there’s a circuit breaker that could be brought in around that mid-Halloween break, it would get us round having to close schools.
“But I think what we’re seeing in regards to the advance of cases, it’s whether we can wait until then.”
The minister said the trajectory of hospital admissions would exceed the first wave of the virus within six weeks if infections continued at their current rate.
He had a stark message for those flouting restrictions.
“Please examine your conscience – this isn’t a game,” he said.
“It’s not a rehearsal, because we will only get one chance to get this right.”
Stormont’s chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said a circuit breaker would be the most effective way of suppressing the virus.
But he stressed that would have to be balanced against its economic and societal impact.
“I think it’s right that we’d be able to present a fairly wide range of options (to the Executive),” he said.
“Each of which would have some impact in terms of transmission of the virus, but each of which comes with a cost – an economic cost, a societal cost, a cost in terms of individual freedom.
“And all of those things I think need to be weighed up, but there’s no doubt that the idea of a circuit breaker is one of the more powerful interventions in terms of reducing the transmission of the virus and that other interventions, short of a circuit breaker, are likely to have a lesser effect.”