Northern Ireland is in danger of heading down a “slippery and treacherous slope” in the coronavirus pandemic, the Stormont health minister has warned.
Robin Swann said he is “as worried today as I have been for some time”, but added that a second spike is “not inevitable”.
“We can still arrest that slide but this requires decisive action from all of us,” he said.
“This virus has not lost its energy or potency, it has not got tired of spreading. We cannot and should not give into fatigue or complacency. Covid-19 won’t go away just because we are fed up with it.”
Appearing alongside him at the Stormont media briefing, the region’s chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young indicated Northern Ireland’s infection rate has recently been the highest in the UK or Ireland.
“If you look at the number of cases per head of population, then at present that is 16 per 100,000 of our population in the last seven days, or 24 per 100,000 in the last 14 days,” he said.
“Those figures are slightly higher than the rest of the UK or Republic of Ireland on average, indicating that the epidemic is increasing significantly in Northern Ireland.”
Prof Young described “very considerable variation” in cases, from less than three per 100,000 in Fermanagh and Omagh council area to consistently over 50 in Mid and East Antrim council area.
Mr Swann said the Executive will consider renewed restrictions when it meets on Thursday, which could include localised measures by council district or region-wide steps.
“The time is coming for the Executive to consider fresh and concrete actions to prevent the further spread of the virus,” he said.
He also noted that Northern Ireland had repelled the “nightmare scenario” in the first wave of Covid-19.
“The threat that stared us in the face back in March is still there but this is not the time to blink,” he said.
He rejected the suggestion that the region had emerged from lockdown too early, saying a rise in cases was expected when restrictions eased.
Mr Swann said the Executive had wanted to retain the reproductive number of coronavirus at or below 1.2 as measures eased, but the rate had now risen above that target.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said potential new restrictions would most likely involve “close indoor social contacts”.
“That might include us looking at restrictions on the number of individuals gathering in family meetings indoors, the number of households coming together, it may require us to look at the number of people who are gathering outdoors, for instance for family events,” he said.
“We also may need to look at transport and shared transport, individuals travelling in shared vehicles, cars, etc.
“And, if indeed we see particular clusters or outbreaks that are related to particular establishments, particularly in the hospitality or service sector in terms of pubs and restaurants, those also may be things that we need to look at.”
Dr McBride said the flu vaccine programme was being significantly expanded in Northern Ireland, warning of the increased threat to life if people contracted flu and Covid-19 at the same time.
— Department of Health (@healthdpt) August 18, 2020
He delivered a blunt message to those ignoring coronavirus regulations and guidance.
“Wise up, this is far too important,” he said.
Mr Swann said the department’s contact tracing app has been downloaded almost 276,000 times.
He said it is already making a difference, with 76 notifications issued to users informing them they have been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive.
The Department of Health’s daily figures on Tuesday included one new death, taking the tally in the region to 559, as well as another 41 positive cases.
There have been almost 300 new cases confirmed in Northern Ireland over the past seven days.