Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister has warned that a potential extension of the region’s four-week circuit-break lockdown cannot be taken off the table.
Michelle O’Neill, in her first public appearance since coming out of 14 days of self-isolation, said she hoped the Covid-19 virus could be sufficiently suppressed so as to allow restrictions to be lifted on November 13.
But she made clear that relaxing the measures on that date was not a definite commitment.
“I am very open and honest about the fact that we’re in a very challenging situation,” said Ms O’Neill.
“And I believe that everything has to remain on the table. I don’t want us to have to impose further restrictions. I hope we can avoid that.
“I think if everybody works really hard at the measures we’ve brought into place now in this intervention then we possibly can avoid that. I want us to be able to avoid that. But I’m honest enough to be able to say that all these things have to remain on the table.”
Ms O’Neill’s comments came in contrast to those of First Minister Arlene Foster who has insisted the circuit-breaker will not extend beyond four weeks.
Health minister Robin Swann also expressed hope that the region was starting to “turn the corner” on the second wave of the virus.
Mr Swann confirmed that there would be no imminent reintroduction of advice for people in vulnerable categories to shield themselves from wider society. Shielding has been paused in Northern Ireland since July.
On Friday, Northern Ireland came to the end of its first week of a four-week circuit-breaker.
Pubs and restaurants are closed except for takeaway and deliveries, while schools are shut for a fortnight.
There were five further coronavirus-linked deaths and 1,252 new cases of the virus announced on Friday.
The death toll recorded by the department now stands at 639. There are currently 296 patients with Covid-19 being treated in hospital with 34 in intensive care.
The Sinn Fein vice president, who had to isolate after a family member tested positive for Covid-19, said the Executive needed to avoid a cycle of lockdowns.
Mrs Foster delivered a similar message at a Stormont press conference on Thursday.
“We need to use this window of opportunity that we have in the next weeks ahead to try to address what is our next step, to develop the exit strategy to try and find a way for us to be able to keep the virus at a suppressed level and at the same time open things up as much as we possibly can,” Ms O’Neill told reporters in Coalisland, Co Tyrone.
The Deputy First Minister said investment in the test and trace system was key.
“I think we should try to avoid a cycle of lockdowns,” she said.
“We need a strategy that moves us away from a blanket approach to lockdown or circuit-breaker. I believe the best and most effective way to do that is actually to invest in a first class test, trace and isolate system.
“I think that what we have at the moment doesn’t go far enough and I think there’s certainly a lot of room for improvement.”
Ms O’Neill insisted the Executive’s key priority was to reopen the schools on November 2.
But she did not give a definite commitment that this would happen, highlighting that the measure would be reviewed next week.
“I think that what we want to see at the end of next week is an assessment from the public health team again to let us know where they think things sit,” she said.
“And then we’ve built in a review into the executive decision making. But it’s all of our intention to have children return to school at the end of the holiday period.”
She indicated the Executive may find itself having to close down other sections of society or the economy in order to keep schools open.
“I think it has to be a policy objective of the whole Executive to have children in school,” Ms O’Neill said.
“So that means that we have to make hard choices around what are the things we have to do in order to keep schools open. But that’ll be a decision for the Executive over the course of the next number of weeks.”
In a written statement to the Assembly on Friday, Mr Swann said the rate of infection increase had slowed from last week.
He said the tally of 296 patients currently in hospitals was “very close to peak levels” of wave one and in some of the region’s health trusts that level had been exceeded.
“Whilst we are sadly reporting a number of deaths each day now, and R remains above one both for cases and hospital admissions, it does appear that Northern Ireland may be beginning to turn the corner on this wave,” said the minister.