People in Northern Ireland ‘doing right thing’ but lockdown likely to last beyond February 6

The latest pandemic lockdown in Northern Ireland is likely to last beyond February 6, the region’s chief medical officer has said.

The Stormont Executive introduced tough restrictions and a stay at home message amid the third wave of Covid-19 infections.

First Minister Arlene Foster praised “many people doing the right thing” for a drop in the reproductive rate of the virus from 1.8 last week to around 1.1

She said the vaccination programme rollout gives “light at the end of the tunnel” but warned the “route back to normality” will take many months.

Ms Foster (pictured) appeared at a joint press conference with Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill on Tuesday for the first time in more than a month.

They both expressed concern at reports of some employers not adhering to the “stay-at-home” order for staff and some retailers not following the “spirit” of the restrictions.

The joint leaders are set to meet with representatives of the retail sector.

They were also set to speak with PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne on Tuesday evening around enforcement.

Tuesday saw a further 1,205 cases of Covid-19 reported as well as 22 deaths of people who tested positive for the virus.

Hospitals remain under pressure with 785 inpatients with Covid, 55 of whom are in intensive care and 38 on mechanical ventilation.

Dr Michael McBride said restrictions will be required for a “considerable number of months”.

“I’m not certain that we will be emerging from lockdown in February, I think that would be optimistic in the extreme, we have a long long way to go with this virus,” the chief medical officer said.

“We are in the most difficult and challenging time of the year where we know that respiratory viruses circulate more readily, I don’t think any of us can be anticipating a return to normality come February 6.

“We will require restrictions to be in place yet until such times as we have more members of the population who are extremely vulnerable vaccinated.”

Chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said that while the R number has “fallen significantly”, the lag between case numbers and hospital admissions indicate pressures in healthcare settings will peak in the last weeks of January.

Prof Young said the fall in case numbers shows that staying at home works, adding “it must be sustained”.

Almost 100,000 vaccinations have been administered in the region to elderly care home residents, care home workers, those over 80 and health staff.

The next phase, which includes those aged over 75 and the extremely clinically vulnerable is set to begin in February.

Mrs Foster urged the public to make “simple everyday choices” such as phoning family and friends rather than visiting, doing one big food shop and not unnecessarily going into the workplace.

“We’re all sick and tired of restrictions but we absolutely must do it to get through it,” she said.

Mrs Foster expressed disappointment that some employers and business owners are requiring their staff to attend work when people can work from home as a “selfish spirit”.

Ms O’Neill added: “That’s not only unfair to the smaller retailers who are complying with the requirement to remain closed but it also goes against all the effort to stop the spread of coronavirus right across the community.

“We’re in for difficult days ahead, the vaccine programme is rolling out … but it’s going to take us some months before we get to the point where we have significant vaccinations right across society to make the difference that we all really look forward to.”

Earlier assistant chief constable Alan Todd said gatherings in private dwellings were the primary concern of public health experts and, as a consequence, were the key focus of police efforts to enforce coronavirus regulations.

Mr Todd’s comments came as the body representing rank and file officers, the Police Federation, called for Stormont to give the PSNI more powers to order people to return home.

Under new powers that came into force last week, police can order people to return to their property if they are in breach of regulations.

But they can only advise people to return home if they are acting in variance with coronavirus guidance.

Mr Todd said generally there had been “very high” rates of compliance with the new regulations.

Police issued 168 fines over Friday, Saturday and Sunday – mostly for individuals in respect of illegal house parties.

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