Restrictions on movement in Northern Ireland will remain in place for the foreseeable future, a Stormont minister has said.
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey indicated there would be no relaxation of the coronavirus lockdown measures next week when a review is due.
Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, who appeared alongside Ms Hargey at the daily Covid-19 press briefing at Stormont, warned people not to travel to beauty spots and popular visitor locations over the Easter weekend.
He said those who were currently “misbehaving badly” would face punishment, as he stressed that police would be patrolling in significant numbers over the coming days.
The number of deaths linked to coronavirus in a hospital setting in Northern Ireland rose to 78 on Wednesday, with five further deaths reported in the previous 24 hours.
There were 84 new confirmed cases of the virus, bringing the total in the region to 1,339.
Ms Hargey made clear there would be no imminent relaxation of the measures.
“I think the restrictions are in for the foreseeable future,” she said.
“We obviously continuously look at the medical advice and the modelling that is there. We know that the restrictions that have been put in over the last number of weeks have had an impact and we want to make sure that that continues and that there’s no sharp increase in the number of cases.
“What we don’t want is to lift that too early and then seeing a sharp rise again, and that is a concern, obviously, so these restrictions will be in for the foreseeable future.”
Mr Poots said the daily death updates were like flashbacks to the Northern Ireland Troubles.
He urged people not to lose their nerve and continue to adhere to social distancing restrictions.
“Every one of us can make a contribution to ensuring that there are less people lose their lives by following the steps that have been outlined – they are working and the public need to know this,” he said.
“What they’re doing is actually working, it’s doing good, they are saving lives.
“Keep at it. Now is not the time to go weak on it, now is not the time to give up. Keep at it – you’re doing a wonderful job.
“There’s some people who are misbehaving badly. I hope those people are punished for it appropriately. The rest of you, you’re doing a brilliant job, keep doing what you’re doing, you’re saving lives, and you’re saving our health service and supporting the superb work that our healthcare workers are doing.”
He added: “So let’s not lose our nerve. Now’s the time not to reverse all the good work that has been done, now is the time to make it count by staying at home.”
Asked if Northern Ireland should consider replicating the restriction in place in the Irish Republic – preventing travel beyond 2km of home – Mr Poots stressed that police were patrolling the streets to ensure people were not out for inappropriate reasons.
“So if people think that it’s okay to fill their car up and head off this weekend they’ll be in for a shock because the police will be out on the roads,” he said.
“People will be asked what they’re doing and the law will be explained to them that it’s entirely inappropriate.”
Mr Poots said the most effective way of ensuring compliance was for everyone to demonstrate “self-discipline”.
“This isn’t going to last forever – it’s going last a bit longer before we can start to relax things, but this is not going to last forever,” he said.
“So be patient – what you’re doing is saving lives.”
Ms Hargey said she wanted the public to comply voluntarily and stressed that police would be engaging and encouraging people in the first instance.
But she made clear officers would take enforcement action if required.
“I think it is clear that getting into a car to go and take exercise is not going to do exercise – it’s actually a day trip out, and it’s unnecessary and it shouldn’t happen,” she said.
“So if people do have to exercise, they should be doing that within the vicinity as close to their home as they possibly can.
“Enforcement action will happen if that needs to happen.
“There will be on-the-spot fines, those fines can be increased and other measures can be introduced. But obviously up until now a good majority of the public have really worked well with us and that has helped reduce the peak.
“This isn’t going to last forever. We’re asking people to work with us in the short term, so that we have people coming out in the longer term to actually live a full and prosperous life.”