A number of weeks to go before NI lockdown eased, says chief medical officer

It will be several weeks before it is safe to ease Northern Ireland’s coronavirus lockdown, the chief medical officer said.

A Stormont minister has publicly mused whether to loosen restrictions on garden centres and other businesses.

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said: “We just need to ensure that we don’t give mixed messages at this time.

“I would be reluctant to put in place an artificial time frame for those decisions prematurely.”

Northern Ireland’s death toll from Covid-19 climbed by 17 to 404, figures released on Tuesday showed.

A total of 3,881 cases of the virus are confirmed, the Department of Health said.

Stormont ministers are due to meet on Thursday to review regulations around areas such as sport and re-opening golf courses.

Dr McBride said: “People are tired and we have a number of weeks to go yet before we are in a position where I believe the evidence suggests that it would be safe to step down any of these measures without seeing that R number (the number of people each person with the virus infects) increase and us getting back to that situation where we had an exponential growth.”

Aer Lingus has faced criticism after pictures emerged of an almost full flight from Belfast to Heathrow this week.

Stormont health minister Robin Swann said it appeared the airline was “oblivious” to any of the guidelines around social distancing.

He warned against public complacency and said any change in restrictions would be gradual.

“I am becoming increasingly concerned.

“I am concerned that the debate on the future of the lockdown is getting ahead of itself.

“It is getting ahead of the reality people are still facing.

“It would pile tragedy upon tragedy if Northern Ireland lost its way at this stage.”

HEALTH Coronavirus Ulster
HEALTH Coronavirus Ulster

He added: “We need to stick to what we are doing to keep saving lives.”

Dr McBride warned against any return to exponential growth in the virus’s spread.

“It is about sequencing of these steps and assessing the impact that that is then having on the R number,” he said.

“To put dates on that at this time would be very challenging, some might say it is speculative as we just don’t know the impact that easing of the current measures would have on how the virus is spreading.”

Dr McBride added: “Now is not the time to confuse the public with discussion about easing the measures.”

He said it was not yet safe to ease up on the movement restrictions, adding: “We have work to do in terms of planning.”