Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer (CMO) Sir Michael McBride has said he does not think the region is facing the prospect of another coronavirus lockdown.
However, Sir Michael warned that Northern Ireland was facing a very serious situation and some further restrictions on certain settings may be required if efforts to suppress the current Covid-19 wave fail.
“I don’t think that we’ll go back to the situation that we had before, back in March last year, when we had that lockdown,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
He said the vaccination programme meant a lockdown was less likely.
Sir Michael said he was confident the Executive will “do the right thing” at their next meeting, expected to be on Monday.
“I look with some concern about what’s happening in Europe but it’s difficult to say whether that is something that we’re going to experience and that we’re at the early stages of that, or indeed because of the success of our vaccination programme and other measures that we will avoid that,” he told reporters at the Department of Health headquarters in Belfast.
“I think we just have to wait and see, It is quite clear in Northern Ireland that we need to act decisively and intervene now and I am confident that the Executive will do the right thing when they meet to discuss recommendations in the coming days.”
Earlier Sir Michael said: “If we don’t act now and if we don’t act decisively, unfortunately we may well be back advising the Executive that further interventions are needed to prevent our health service being overwhelmed.”
He said the easing of restrictions in the hospitality sector at the end of October had led to a “very significant uptick in cases”.
The region’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Young, said there is a “menu of measures” that are known to be effective that can be recommended to the Stormont Executive in mid-December if the situation deteriorates.
He indicated those would include restrictions or closures in some sectors, but that closing retail would be unlikely.
“We’re seeing a strong upward trajectory of cases in Northern Ireland and that’s a pattern that we’re seeing in the Republic of Ireland and also in many countries across western Europe as we move into the winter,” he told the Nolan Show.
“In about three to four weeks’ time if we don’t take any action then it looks as if the hospitals would be at risk of being overwhelmed.
“We’re still not at the levels of Covid that we saw last winter… the hospitals have contingency plans in place and those plans are being activated but if the Covid numbers rise more significantly then even those plans may not be sufficient.”
Asked about the Department of Health proposal to strengthen working from home guidance, Sir Michael said evidence indicated that was potentially “one of the single most effective interventions”.
He said people did not need to cancel scheduled Christmas parties at this stage but advised them to take precautions to minimise risk, such as taking a lateral flow test prior to attending.
Health Minister Robin Swann has unveiled the latest plans to accelerate the roll-out of COVID vaccine boosters and further increase first dose take-up.
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— Department of Health (@healthdpt) November 18, 2021
A further seven deaths of patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 and another 1,690 cases of the virus were notified in Northern Ireland on Friday.
On the same day, there were 410 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 33 in intensive care.
The CMO stressed the virus is unpredictable, and while officials can model scenarios, much depends on whether the public follow health guidelines.
“The next couple of weeks are going to be very, very challenging,” he told the Nolan Show.
“No one should be in any doubt whatsoever about the urgency and seriousness of the situation we are currently now facing into, with the 23% increase in cases in the last week and a 19% increase in hospital admissions with Covid.
“We need to act now… it means all of us making sure that we are fully vaccinated, to work from home where it is practically possible