The Delta variant of Covid-19 has been cited as “grounds for concern” in an Executive paper from Health Minister Robin Swann which states Northern Ireland cannot yet plan to end social distancing.
The Northern Ireland Executive met on Thursday to discuss further relaxations of the coronavirus restrictions put in place to try to limit the spread.
Dates have been agreed for next steps, subject to ratification.
However, Mr Swann outlined to colleagues: “We are not yet at the point where we can set a date for an end to social distancing, the use of face coverings, or the other public health measures that have been so important throughout the pandemic.
“Normality, as we knew it in 2019, is still some way off.”
According to Mr Swann, the number of confirmed cases of the Delta variant remains small, but evidence from Great Britain indicates that could change rapidly.
He also outlined that testing in the last few days has indicated that up to 25% of new cases in Northern Ireland may be the highly transmissible Delta variant.
In his Executive paper, the Health Minister also said the Delta variant was associated with a higher risk of hospital admission.
“In the event of the Delta variant becoming dominant, modelling indicates the potential for a significant fresh surge of positive cases and hospitalisations by late summer/early autumn,” he said.
“It needs to be emphasised that this is by no means inevitable.
“Modelling is not a prediction and there are many uncertainties in every potential scenario. It is essential that good levels of adherence to public health advice are maintained, alongside take-up of first and second vaccine doses.”
A total of 111 probable and confirmed cases of the Delta variant of the coronavirus have been detected across Northern Ireland, according to the Public Health Agency.
The figure comes as the agency concludes its enhanced testing work in the Kilkeel area of Co Down.
More than 2,100 residents have been tested amid concerns around the number of cases of the highly transmissible Delta variant, first detected in India and now thought to account for over 90% of Covid-19 cases in the UK.