Some restrictions may be long term, warns Health Minister

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Health Minister Robin Swann said wearing face masks in shops and on public transport may be needed well into the future. Credit: Pacemaker

Face coverings in shops and on public transport may be needed well into the future, Northern Ireland's Health Minister said.

Some restrictions may be in place long term.

The country has been in a tough lockdown since after Christmas.

Robin Swann said: "We may be wearing face coverings in shops and on public transport for a time to come.

"That kind of restriction may well become part of our new normal."

Health chiefs have urged caution and "baby steps" as Stormont Executive ministers next week consider the future of restrictions into next month.

Mr Swann said: "This is not to say that lockdown, or partial lockdown, will roll on indefinitely.

"It doesn't have to be that way."

He said continued restrictions and lockdown are not the same thing.

He said caution must be the watchword.

"When it comes to the easing of any restrictions, we have to crawl before we walk, walk before we even think about running," the minister continued.

"If there are to be any changes in the next few weeks or months, they must be introduced gradually and carefully, and strictly monitored."

The lockdown has seen infection rates fall and numbers admitted to hospital with Covid-19 fall.

The health minister said infectious new variants represent a considerable uncertainty.

"We cannot risk a swift and destructive surge of new cases, with our health service still reeling from the most recent surge," he said.

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Hospitality chiefs have said they are worried by the warnings.

Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill claimed the comments were made without clarification on what level of restrictions might be needed.

He added: "We need to focus on pushing the vaccine and do all we can to encourage uptake, whilst looking towards economic recovery.

"We appreciate the chief medical officer will always err on the side of caution, but general comments about ongoing restrictions have further knocked the confidence of both business owners and consumers and brought about further worry and concern."

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride envisaged a summer similar to last summer's, when many restrictions were eased.

He said: "As we move through autumn and winter we are likely to require some additional restrictions as we have required this winter."

He said as more people at risk of serious illness were vaccinated the pressures on the health service were likely to ease.

The R number for ICU admissions is still above one.