NI Covid restrictions could be eased in days as leader supports reducing isolation period

Northern Ireland could see some Covid measures eased within coming days. Credit: PA

Northern Ireland's First Minister Paul Givan has indicated lifting of some coronavirus restrictions could begin as early as next week.

He also backed reducing isolation time from seven to five days for positive Covid cases, in a show of support for bringing NI into line with others part of the UK.

It comes after Health Secretary Sajid Javid today announced England's self-isolation period would be cut to five days.

Mr Given said he supported a move from seven to five days as an isolation period but stressed the decision rested with NI's Health Minister Robin Swann.

"I raised this issue today in terms of what our policy would be and that ultimately it is a decision that sits exclusively with Robin Swann," Mr Givan said.

He said ministers were given an encouraging update on the situation following a meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive on Thursday.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, however, expressed concern lifting of restrictions could lead to a spike in cases.

"But, given the information that we have around the reduced severity of this Omicron variant - we can see in terms of the pressures on our health service not manifesting the way we feared that it could - then we're going to have to continue to look at this self-isolation policy.

"Because, ultimately, we need to get to a point where we are living with this virus, because it isn't going to go away any time soon.

"We have to recognise the kind of proportionate, balanced risk decisions that we have to take and, on that one on self-isolation policy, if there's movement from seven days to five, which we've already seen in other parts of the world, then I think Northern Ireland should also be moving in that direction as well.

"But that, ultimately, sits with Robin Swann to take that decision. It's not an Executive-wide decision."

Deirdre Hargey said Covid restrictions would not be kept longer than needed.

She said: "We will take advice from public health, from the chief medical officer and also from our health minister.

"I know from a Sinn Fein point of view, we will always be led by the health and medical advice and we will have to see what the situation is in a week again.

"That is why we are going to be meeting again next week to assess the situation.

"We have said we will not keep restrictions longer than we need to, but that has to be set against the health advice on where we are."

The latest coronavirus figures from the Department of Health show there have been another 14 deaths linked to the virus reported on Thursday. That is the highest number of deaths reported in almost a year.

The department's death toll has reached 3,031.

It also released new antibody survey results suggesting over 97% of the NI population has had Covid. Officials stressed the presence of antibodies was not an indicator of better protection from the virus.

Nine hospitals are over capacity, however the data shows a decrease in Covid admissions. There have been 229 admissions in the past week with 311 in the seven days previous.

Health Minister Robin Swann expressed his "deep sadness" for the families of the 14 people whose Covid-related deaths were reported in the 24 hours to Thursday.

"These tragic losses once again underline the reality that the virus still represents a very serious threat to our population," he said.

"We have undoubtedly made progress in pushing down Omicron numbers, thanks to the efforts everyone has made and the rapid rollout of vaccine boosters.

First Minister Paul Givan Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

"However, we must never lose sight of the fact that Covid-19 can still cause devastation to families and communities.

"Please do all you can to prevent the spread of the virus. Even if you think the risk to you from infection may be relatively low, you could still pass it on to someone who is very vulnerable.

"I would again appeal for more people to come forward for their boosters without delay. If you are not yet vaccinated, please get your jab. Boosters and first and second doses are widely available across Northern Ireland."