Northern Ireland’s Health minister has warned of the potential for stricter social distancing measures amid evidence that the current lockdown is having an impact.
Robin Swann said people needed to realise that the restrictions would not be lifted in the short term, stressing that the region would be dealing with Covid-19 for a “very long time”.
“I don’t want to put a message out today that we are thinking about relaxing some of the measures when we are actually seeing a situation where we may actually have to make them stronger,” he said.
His warning came as chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride welcomed emerging evidence that social distancing was helping to flatten the infection curve in Northern Ireland.
Dr McBride said the virus reproductive rate, the number of people an infected person passes the disease to, had fallen from between 2.5-2.8 people to below one.
However, the senior medic warned there was no room for complacency, cautioning that the region was a long way off considering an exit strategy.
“We are far, far too early to even begin contemplating… stepping back or stepping away from these measures at this point in time, because this virus is out there and it would just come straight back at us,” he said.
A total of 73 people with coronavirus have died in a hospital setting in Northern Ireland, with three further deaths reported on Tuesday.
Another 97 new cases of Covid-19 were detected, taking the total confirmed diagnoses to 1,255.
Mr Swann also revealed that coronavirus cases had been reported in 20 nursing homes in Northern Ireland.
Dr McBride and Mr Swann made their comments at Stormont’s daily Covid-19 media briefing at Parliament Buildings in Belfast.
Earlier on Tuesday, health authorities on both sides of the Irish border signed a memorandum of understanding to facilitate greater co-operation on messaging, research and public health measures.
In Belfast, an MOT centre was reopened as a drive through Covid-19 testing facility for healthcare workers.
At Stormont, a new ad hoc committee on the pandemic heard evidence from the first and deputy first ministers. Just before it sat, it emerged that Assembly speaker Alex Maskey is self-isolating for 12 weeks due to his cardiac history.
First Minister Arlene Foster told the committee that some healthcare workers could suffer post-traumatic stress disorder following their experiences.
Stormont’s agriculture minister Edwin Poots, who also gave evidence, said the UK Government will need to “step up” to help Northern Ireland’s crisis-hit farming industry.
On Tuesday, paramedics in Northern Ireland also asked the fire service for support in their efforts to transfer an increased number of patients during the coronavirus pandemic.
At the Stormont press briefing, the health minister said people should not expect an imminent return to normal life.
Mr Swann said measures could only be relaxed if people adhere to the current restrictions.
“This isn’t going to go away at the end of the restrictions,” he said.
“So when we look at the restrictions in two or three weeks’ time, it may be we’re extending that period, we may actually be putting in more restrictions.
“So to send out the message here today that three weeks’ time, this’ll all be fine, Covid-19 has left Northern Ireland, that message is wrong.
“What we have to get into people’s heads and minds is Covid-19 and the coronavirus is in Northern Ireland and across the world for a very long time.
“So these measures may have to be ramped up and they may have to be scaled back at different points as we see how this virus progresses across Northern Ireland.”
Dr McBride said there are early signs that social distancing was working.
“There is no doubt that the measures that we put in place are beginning to have an impact,” he said.
“Complacency is our greatest enemy at this time.”
Dr McBride said it was too early to talk about an exit strategy from social distancing.
“I’d be happy to talk about an exit strategy when we have effective treatments and when we have a vaccine – we’re not in that place at this point in time,” he said.
Mr Swann said the care home cases were being managed by the Public Health Agency (PHA) and the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA).
The minister said: “If anyone needs to be moved into hospital that is being done, there is no time lag or delay.”