The North's chief medical officer has appealed to people in the Republic to limit non-essential travel to Northern Ireland.
Dr Michael McBride said there was "no doubt" non-essential cross-border trips were "contributing to some of the increased incidence of infection that we're seeing in Derry City and Strabane and in the Newry and Mourne areas".
Speaking at a press briefing on Wednesday, Dr McBride said that while the health authorities in the North recognised that people living in Border communities needed to cross the border for work, education and family reasons, “in terms of those who are travelling for non-essential reasons it would be preferable from a public health point of view that that sort of travel was limited at this time”.
The public health rationale for this, he said, was the “higher incidence of the infection in the Republic of Ireland at this time ... and we also have a very different rate of rollout of vaccination, although I think that gap will probably close significantly over the summer.
“I think we just need to make sure we keep each other safe, recognising that we’re in different places at this moment and hopefully those differences will become less over time,” he said.
Dr McBride's comments were echoed by the North's Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Lourda Geoghegan, who said that that in regard to discretionary or non-essential travel "we would ask people to assess their journeys – if they really want to take them, if they really need to take them, and if they're doing so in a safe manner".
Northern Ireland’s lockdown restrictions were substantially lifted on Monday, with the full reopening of the hospitality industry both indoors and outdoors. People are also allowed to meet inside private homes for the first time since Christmas.
Under the rules which came into force on May 24th, travel to Northern Ireland from within the Common Travel Area is permitted, though the advice is that if visitors plan to remain for at least 24 hours they should self-isolate for
ten days, unless subject to a number of exemptions.
These include work, education and visits to family and friends, as well as – for those who live in Border counties – buying essential goods and services within a local area.
A further 66 positive cases of Covid-19 have been identified in the North, the Northern Ireland Department of Health said on Wednesday. There were no additional fatalities
A total of 28 people were receiving hospital treatment for Covid-19, with two in intensive care.
The North’s Minister for Health said on Wednesday that he plans to announce the extension of the Covid-19 vaccination programme in Northern Ireland to 18 to 24-year-olds “in the very near future.”
So far more than 70 per cent of the adult population of Northern Ireland have received their first dose of the vaccine, and more than 40 per cent have been given both doses.
A total of 15 cases of the so-called Indian variant of Covid-19 have been identified in Northern Ireland, but Dr McBride said there was no evidence of sustained community transmission of the mutation.
However with the potential for increased travel over the summer he said it was likely this figure would increase, and it “may in due course” become the dominant variant.
Meanwhile the “new technology” of waste water testing is being used to track cases of Covid-19, with an estimated 38 per cent of the waste water in the North’s sewage system currently being tested at 13 different sites to determine where the virus is present.
Dr Geoghegan said it was potentially more effective than relying on people who have contracted the virus to come forward.
“The benefit with waste water surveillance is that regular testing of the water is telling us for a geographical area if there is Covid in the area or not, and secondly it can tell us if there is a variant of concern in a particular area,” she said.