Five more coronavirus-related deaths and South African variant confirmed in NI

Five more people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in Northern Ireland in the last 24-hour reporting period, according to the Department of Health.

It brings the official death toll as recorded by the department to 2,041, although that figure is expected to be significantly higher when deaths in all community settings are accounted for.

Meanwhile, three confirmed cases of the South African variant of Covid-19 have been detected in Northern Ireland – the first in the region.

A detailed health protection risk assessment and contact tracing response has been deployed and the Department of Health says the risk of transmission is judged to be low at this time.

Health Minister Robin Swann said: “I have previously been clear that identification of a confirmed case or cases of this variant in Northern Ireland was inevitable at some point.

“This development does not mean that this variant is going to become the most prevalent, or the dominant strain in Northern Ireland.

“However, it does underline once again the very real need for continuing caution in relation to Covid-19.”

The best way to stop variants developing or spreading is to keep pushing down infection rates and transmission of the virus in our community. All variants of the virus spread in the same way.

Health Minister Robin Swann

The latest figures also show there have been 225 new positive cases, out of 1,841 individuals tested.

In the last seven days, there have been 1,929 positive cases.

There are currently 376 people with Covid-19 being treated in hospitals across Northern Ireland – 48 of them in intensive care and 39 on ventilators.

Bed occupancy is at 99%, with Antrim Area, the Causeway, the Royal Victoria, the South West Acute, and the Ulster Hospital all operating beyond capacity.

There are also 46 confirmed and active outbreaks of Covid-19 in care homes.

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The latest figures come after Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a road map to gradually lift England out of lockdown – prompting speculation about the path devolved regions would take.

The PM has warned nothing in his plans can be guaranteed, but says he is hopeful, particularly given the roll-out of the vaccination programme.

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Under the road map, the earliest date for the easing of almost all coronavirus restrictions in England would be 21 June.

Northern Ireland remains under tight restrictions until at least 1 April, with a review due on 18 March.

The issue of schools is particularly causing controversy, with pupils in England all due to return to face-to-face learning on 8 March.

In Northern Ireland, a staggered approach will see some young primary school pupils return to class on 8 March before going back to remote learning for a week when some older post-primary pupils preparing for exams go back to class on 22 March.

The NI Executive has not yet committed to a date for the full return of the wider school population, but First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster has said she hopes ministers will revisit the issue.

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