Nine more coronavirus-related deaths recorded in Northern Ireland

The Health Minister said on Wednesday that some of the current restrictions may be in place long term. Credit: UTV

Nine people who tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland have died, according to the Department of Health.

Eight of the deaths occured in the last 24 hours.

It brings the official death toll as recorded by the department to 1,966.

253 new coronavirus cases were also reported, the lowest daily total since 1 October.

The Health Minister said on Wednesday that some of the current restrictions, aimed at reducing the spread of the virus, may be in place long term.

In the last seven days, there have been 2,377 positive cases.

Department of Health: Covid-19 data dashboard

There are currently 518 people with Covid-19 being treated in hospitals across Northern Ireland – 58 of them in intensive care and 53 on ventilators.

Bed occupancy is slowly dropping at 95%, with Altnagelvin, Antrim Area, Royal Victoria and Ulster hospitals operating beyond capacity.

The number of confirmed and active outbreaks in care homes continues to fall and is now at 80.

The latest figures come as the Health Minister has expressed concern that the number of close contacts linked to positive coronavirus cases is on the rise.

Robin Swann said the average number of contacts associated with people who tested positive was just below one at the start of the year.

He told the Assembly's health committee that figure is now almost 2.5.

Mr Swann was discussing the work of Northern Ireland's test, trace and protect system.

He said the upscaled system was ensuring around 94% of close contacts were being reached and informed. He said the average time to make contact was six and a half hours.

Mr Swann said that in January around 12,000 positive cases a week were being processed.

He added that figure had dropped to 3,000 last week as result of restrictions.

"So slightly concerned that positive cases are still seeing more people, even though we're in that period of restriction," he added.

Mr Swann told committee members the reproduction rate of the infection - the number of people an infected person infects - had fallen well below one as a result of lockdown.

"That has undoubtedly saved lives and interrupted a potentially catastrophic crisis for both the health and social care service, as well as society as a whole," said the minister.

However, he said the decline had "stagnated" and in recent weeks had started to edge up again.

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"Although the downward trend in new cases continues there is an increasing concern that R has stabilised and stagnated and at times even started to creep up towards one in recent weeks," Robin Swann said.

"And that means the hospital occupancy may fall more slowly with pressures ongoing for a number of weeks ahead."

Mr Swann later added: "Our R rate is now as low as it has been since October (but) it's not as low as it was July, not as low as it was in June, so it's still high."

The minister said when the executive was adopting a regional approach to lockdown restrictions last year the trigger point for action was 80 cases per 100,000.

"Now we haven't a local district across Northern Ireland lower than that," he said.

Meanwhile, Arlene Foster has said that next week will be a "key decision point" for Northern Ireland's leaders over lockdown restrictions.

The First Minister hailed the "significant achievement" of pushing down the curve of coronavirus infections across "all of the health indicators".

She said the R number is "steadily below 1" in the community, "probably between 0.75 and 0.85".

"We need to see the numbers as low as possible so that we can safely plan for gradually emerging from the lockdown," she told an Executive press conference in Dungannon.

Arlene Foster and Conor Murphy appearing at a press conference in Dungannon Credit: Pacemaker

"We all want to see an end of the restrictions but we must approach that with care so we don't lose the gains that we have made."

Mrs Foster also referred to the vaccination programme approaching a "significant milestone", with a quarter of all adults in the region expected to have received a first dose of a jab by the weekend.

Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy appeared alongside Mrs Foster.

He also hailed evidence that the pandemic is "beginning to decline".

"The Executive are looking forward to the next phase of our response.

"There is a collective focus on a managed recovery guided by the medical and the scientific advice."