Foster concerned over Delta variant as it accounts for ‘20% of new cases’

Swann warns normality ‘some way off’ as Van Morrison concert cancelled

Northern Ireland's Health Minister Robin Swann has said normality remains "some way off" as he delivered a warning about the spread of the Delta Covid variant.

The warning came as the Public Health Agency said it had identified 111 probable or confirmed cases of the Delta variant across Northern Ireland, with 28 cases in the Co Down town of Kilkeel.

Speaking in Fermanagh, the outgoing First Minister, Arlene Foster, said the Executive was concerned about the spread of the Delta variant.

She said: “Of the new cases that are recorded, about 20 per cent of them are now thought to be Delta variant and therefore we do need to keep a very close eye on that as it develops.

“We know that the Delta variant is more transmissible, up to 40 to about 60 per cent more transmissible, and therefore we need to make sure we continue to protect our citizens.

“But, having said that, we had a good discussion about the relaxation of restrictions, we have set them out, those will happen on June 21st.”

The North's Department of Health reported 109 new confirmed Covid-19 cases and no further deaths. It said 1,837,819 vaccine doses had now been administered.

Executive Ministers met on Thursday to discuss the latest relaxations of Covid-19 restrictions.

Ministers have agreed an indicative date of June 21st for live music to resume, although the decision will have to be confirmed next week in line with health advice.

A planned gig at the Europa Hotel by singer Van Morrison, which had been scheduled for Thursday night, was cancelled just hours before it was due to start because it did not comply with Covid-19 regulations.

The Executive also agreed proposals to raise limits on social contact at home from June 21st, which would allow 10 people from two households to meet indoors, again subject to ratification next week.

The number of people allowed to meet outdoors in a private garden will rise to 15 from any number of households on June 21st.

During the Executive meeting, Ministers were given a briefing paper from Mr Swann in which he said he believed the country was not at a point yet to set a date for an end to social distancing.

Mr Swann said he expected to have data next week on the impact of infection rates following easements introduced in Northern Ireland in recent weeks.

He said: “In addition, the emerging data from Great Britain on the progress of the Delta variant provide grounds for concern.

“We are not yet at the point where we can set a date for an end to social distancing, the use of face coverings or the other public health measures that have been so important throughout the pandemic.

“Normality, as we knew it in 2019, is still some way off.”

The Delta variant, first discovered in India, was first confirmed in Northern Ireland in early May.

Last week, a number of Delta cases were confirmed by health officials, with surge testing taking place in Kilkeel following the discovery of a small cluster.

Mr Swann’s paper said: “While the number of confirmed cases of the Delta variant remains small, the evidence from Great Britain indicates that this could change very rapidly.

“Testing in the last few days has indicated that up to 25 per cent of new cases here may be Delta variant.

“Based on emerging data from GB, the current assessment is that Delta variant is likely to be 40-60 per cent more transmissible than Alpha variant.

“In addition, while vaccination remains effective, it is somewhat less effective against Delta variant compared with Alpha variant.

“In the event of the Delta variant becoming dominant, modelling indicates the potential for a significant fresh surge of positive cases and hospitalisations by late summer/early autumn.

“It needs to be emphasised that this is by no means inevitable.

“Modelling is not a prediction and there are many uncertainties in every potential scenario.

“It is essential that good levels of adherence to public health advice are maintained, alongside take-up of first and second vaccine doses.”

Mr Swann said surge testing, when required, would be carried out to respond to confirmed Delta variant cases and to prevent virus spread.

Meanwhile, the UK's minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove visited Northern Ireland on Thursday as part of the UK Covid Recovery Programme.

Mr Gove visited the headquarters of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service near Belfast where he met workers who had been on the front line during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Explaining his visit, Mr Gove said: "We wanted to ensure that across the United Kingdom we learn from one another, not just in terms of making sure that we build back better economically but also that we can clear backlogs in the NHS, help children to catch up with lost learning and also make sure that jobs and prosperity are protected as we recover from this once-in-a-lifetime health crisis." – PA