NI ministers play down talk of added Covid restrictions

Public urged to ‘double down’ on existing measures after first three cases of Omicron variant are confirmed

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride urged people to continue to follow the public health guidance and to come forward for vaccination and booster jabs.  Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride urged people to continue to follow the public health guidance and to come forward for vaccination and booster jabs. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

The North’s First and Deputy First Ministers have indicated they do not believe further Covid-19 restrictions will be needed before Christmas.

Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill were speaking separately to reporters following the confirmation of the first cases of the Omicron variant in the North.

“I don’t envisage there being further restrictions before Christmas. The current measures that we have in place, if we follow that, will be able to get us through the Christmas period,” Mr Givan said.

Ms O’Neill said it was too early to say but that “as of today, the chief medical officer’s advice, the health minister’s advice, is that what we’re doing is enough.”

The North’s chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, warned on Wednesday that there was “time now, we have time to double down on all those measures we know that work so that we could reduce the spread of Omicron into Northern Ireland and delay as long as we can community transmission.”

He urged people to continue to follow the public health guidance and to come forward for vaccination and booster jabs.

The first three cases of the Omicron variant were confirmed in the North on Tuesday.

Two were in the same household in the greater Belfast area and a third, unconnected case was in the South Eastern Trust area. All three cases have been linked to travel from Britain to Northern Ireland.

Ministers are due to meet in the coming days to discuss the challenge posed by the variant.

Dr McBride said on Wednesday that he anticipated the number of cases of the Omicron variant would increase and he suspected there were other cases already in Northern Ireland which had not yet been confirmed.

Asked by reporters about the impact of the controversy around a staff Christmas party which it is alleged took place in UK prime minister’s residence last year, Dr McBride said there was “no one rule for one and a different rule for someone else, these rules are there for all of us and they’re in everyone’s best interest.

“It’s important that the public see that we all practise what we preach,” he said.

The chief scientific adviser, Prof Ian Young, said that while Delta was currently the dominant variant in the North he expected Omicron would “likely” become dominant within a few weeks, though he could not say whether this would be before or after Christmas.

Omicron would have a “significant impact once it becomes established”, he said, though it was too early to be certain about what this might mean.

Prof Young also said he wished the levels of adherence to public health advice was “better than it currently is” and he was “not happy when I go out in public and see the proportion of people who are wearing face coverings, for example in appropriate settings.

“We really need to get up to 80-90 per cent of people in those settings to be using face coverings to get the benefit from them.”

He also said that in regard to Covid certification there was “very clear evidence that certification will reduce transmission of the virus despite what is sometimes heard and said.”

On Wednesday the North’s Department of Health reported the deaths of a further five patients with Covid-19 and an additional 1,933 new cases of the virus.

A total of 329 people with Covid-19 were receiving hospital treatment in the North on Wednesday morning, with 38 in intensive care.