Covid-19: Stormont ministers to consider relaxations to Covid restrictions

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First Minister Paul Givan

Q Radio News/PA

Stormont ministers are set to consider relaxations to Covid-19 restrictions.

They will be informed by the latest Department of Health data which indicates Northern Ireland is likely at the peak of cases in the Omicron surge.

A paper, seen by the PA news agency, advises that case numbers fell substantially in the last week “primarily due” to reduced PCR tests due to a change in testing policy,

But it notes the region is “likely to be at or around peak in terms of case numbers for the Omicron wave at present”.

The paper indicates the true extent of the rise in case numbers is masked by the impact of the change in testing policy, with confirmatory PCR tests no longer required.

The data suggests between 1 in 15 and 1 in 20 of the population tested positive for the virus in the week up to January 7, indicating around 18,000 cases per day, which corresponds to the central and pessimistic scenarios presented in mid-December.

Hospital admissions and Covid bed occupancy increased in the last week, but started to slowly fall in the last few days.

The paper notes Northern Ireland may experience a second peak in case numbers in the next two weeks as a result for further spread of the virus among school age children.

It notes the severity of Omicron appears to be “substantially reduced” from the Delta variant, and it is “likely that current measures will be sufficient to maintain peak hospital numbers at a significantly lower level than last January”.

However, the paper warns that very high levels of community transmission may result in significant staff absences with the potential to reduce capacity in health trusts.

Paul Givan and Michelle O'Neill

On Wednesday evening, First Minister Paul Givan said that the self-isolation period for Covid-19 will reduce from seven days to five.

Mr Givan tweeted that the Department of Health has confirmed that the new rule will apply from January 21.

In the same tweet, Mr Givan also expressed hope that progress can be made at the meeting of the Executive on Thursday to lift some Covid measures.

Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill will travel to Derry/Londonderry on Thursday for a visit, and will remain in the city to virtually chair a meeting of the Executive.

Ministers are expected to consider a series of relaxations of Covid-19 rules.

The outcome of these discussions is to be announced at a press conference in Derry on Thursday afternoon.

Relaxations, if agreed, are likely to be introduced on a phased basis, and include some of the latest restrictions implemented, the PA news agency understands.

On December 22, a series of restrictions on the hospitality sector, including the closure of nightclubs from Boxing Day onward.

Mr Givan tweeted: “Today I’ve been engaging with colleagues & officials on what Covid measures can be lifted at tomorrow’s Executive.

“I’m hopeful we can make progress.”

Ms O’Neill said she hopes to be able to make “some positive strides forward on the Covid front, and particularly in relation to restrictions all the while guided of course by the health advice”.

“We will be taking tomorrow’s Executive meeting from Derry where we will be visiting a number of fantastic new projects that are going to create jobs and generate income for the local economy,” she said.

Earlier this week, there were calls from the business community for relaxations to restrictions.

Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton said predictions about how hard Omicron would hit had been “wide of the mark”, but added the effect of restrictions on businesses was “very real”.

The deaths of a further six people who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 were announced on Wednesday, as well as another 4,451 cases of the virus.

On Wednesday morning, there were 404 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 25 in intensive care.

DFM Michelle O’Neill said she hopes to be able to make “some positive strides forward on the Covid front, and particularly in relation to restrictions all the while guided of course by the health advice”

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