With at least another month of lockdown restrictions ahead after numerous extensions, a return to some kind of normality still seems a long way off.
The rainy days have been adding to the gloomy feeling around this lockdown but better days are hopefully just around the corner.
This evening First Minister Arlene Foster said the current lockdown has made a “major difference” in efforts to suppress the virus.
“In real terms, this means that many thousands of people have been protected from this deadly virus, some of whom would have not survived contact,” she said.
Last night, Health Minister Robin Swann announced that 271,826 vaccination doses had been administered, an increase of over 13,500 in the last 24 hours.
And a “significant” new consignment of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in Northern Ireland this week and was being distributed to GP practices across the country.
Although he warned that the “pandemic is far from over”, he added that “Northern Ireland can and will get though this”.
So as the vaccination programme accelerates and we countdown to the end of the current restriction period on March 5, we are taking a look at when we can expect restrictions to ease and life in Northern Ireland to open up to some kind of normal again.
What are the current restrictions in place and when will they end?
At the moment Northern Ireland is under strict lockdown restrictions as our health service continues to be put under extreme pressures as a result of coronavirus.
The current regulations are in place until March 5 but are set to be reviewed on February 18 by the Executive.
At the moment, no one is allowed to leave their home without a reasonable excuse such as for food, exercise or medical needs. Schools moved to remote learning following the Christmas break and won’t be back in the classroom before March 5.
As well as the hospitality sector remaining closed, non-essential shops, leisure facilities, entertainment venues and close contact services are currently closed.
Everyone is being urged to work from home, unless that is not possible.
What is the current situation with coronavirus infection rates and the pressure on our hospitals?
Last night, Health Minister Robin Swann said coronavirus transmission rates were still too high and although infection rates had come down, he said we “must push them down further and keep them down”.
“Every breach of the rules, no matter how small, can do harm, every little hurts,” he said.
“So I again urge everyone across Northern Ireland not to slip up now, not to give in now and not to surrender now. Stay focused and stay safe.
“We are making progress, let’s keep building on that, there are no short cuts out of this.”
Figures from the Department of Health on Thursday revealed a further 10 people had died after testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the death toll in Northern Ireland to 1,899.
A further 412 positive cases of the virus were reported today, bringing the total number of positive cases to 105,637 since the start of the pandemic.
There are currently 671 Covid-19 confirmed patients in hospital and 68 in intensive care with hospital capacity at 95%.
On Thursday Arlene Foster said pressure on hospitals was “still significant” and in particular at a high level on intensive care units.
Yesterday Professor Chris Whitty, the UK government’s chief medical adviser, said all four nations of the UK have passed the peak of cases, hospitalisation and deaths.
But he admitted that doesn’t mean you can never have another peak.
The R rate in the community in Northern Ireland remains below 1, between 0.75 and 0.85.
How will the vaccination programme help us end lockdown?
Many are pinning their hopes on the vaccine helping us move back towards some sort of normality following the pandemic – and there has been a lot of good news on the vaccine front.
Figures released today show over 453 care homes across Northern Ireland have now received both Covid-19 vaccinations – this includes staff as well as residents who agreed to receive the vaccine.
On Thursday, Arlene Foster revealed 289,000 vaccination doses had been administered to 263,735 people, and a new consignment of the AstraZeneca vaccine had arrived in Northern Ireland.
The rate of the vaccination programme all depends on the supply of the vaccine, so this is good news.
Mrs Foster added that one in seven people in Northern Ireland had received a vaccine, all care homes had received the first vaccine and 90% the second dose as well. She also said 90% of over 80s now had been vaccinated.
Dr Alan Stout, the chair of the Northern Ireland general practitioners committee (NIGPC), described the roll-out as “remarkable” and said over 10% of the NI population have now been vaccinated.
The doctor said we are going to have to be careful, and we will still have the virus circulating, but we are in a good position as lockdown is driving down the infection numbers and is also allowing as many as people as possible to be vaccinated.
“If we can get to a point where we have very low circulating virus and those that we know are most at risk [are] vaccinated, that will actually allow us to open in a very confident manner and a very sustained manner which we haven’t been at before.
“But even when we do that, we will still need to be very, very careful, we will still need all of those measures in terms of infection control.”
Data from a study by the University of Oxford released this week suggested a single dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine offers protection of 76% for up to three months and may reduce transmission by 67% – with efficacy rising to 82.4% after the second dose 12 weeks later.
What will open up again on March 5?
During an Executive press conference on Thursday, First Minister Arlene Foster said now was “not the time to ease up but to really push on”.
“Our experience over this last year has shown us that there is a fragility to all of our hard won gains,” she said.
“This is particularly so now as we continue to assess and monitor the transmission here of what is called the Kent variant.
“So this is not the time to ease up but to really push on and to exert the maximum control on the virus.”
Speaking on January 21, both Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill refused to rule out extending restrictions further after March 5, saying that this would depend on a “number of factors”.
Mrs Foster said it is “wrong” to keep restrictions in place longer than necessary and they will be reviewed in February.
Asked if it was likely that lockdown would be extended to Easter, Arlene Foster said: “We have to be proportionate and we have to only do what is necessary.”
Health Minster Robin Swann previously said it would be “unrealistic to think that we’d be able to lift every restriction come that date [March 5]”.
This week, the Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride urged “extreme caution” over the relaxing of Covid restrictions amid concerns about the spread of the more infectious ‘Kent Variant’.
He said there is “no capacity in the hospital system to deal with a further surge” which a “premature” relaxation of current lockdown measures could lead to particularly as the new strain is “much more transmissable”.
He said any relaxing of the lockdown must be “gradual” with a constant monitoring of the impact of any easements before further moves are considered.
The Chief Medical Officer said “some easement of restrictions will be possible” as the vaccine roll-out continues and as the summer approaches when the virus transmits “less readily”.
So although there is no indication of what may be allowed to reopen after March 5, it appears likely that it will not be a total lifting of restrictions.
The hospitality sector does not expect to be reopening on March 5. Last week, Colin Neill, Chief Executive of Hospitality Ulster, told Belfast Live he does not believe they will be allowed to reopen on March 5 and that there will be some degree of restrictions for the rest of this year.
It is likely that schools will be first to reopen, with the earliest date being March 8 for Northern Ireland and England. Scotland and Wales hope to begin phased reopening of schools after half-term, from February 22.
But a full return to school by all pupils is unlikely and a phased approach may be adopted. The National Education Union’s (NEU) Education Recovery Plan said a full return “may not be possible for some time” and new coronavirus variants would limit how many children could attend school.
The newly-published document said class sizes should be capped at 15 with children attending on a “rota” basis.
On Wednesday, Northern Ireland’s mental health champion Professor Siobhan O’Neill told MLAs the Executive should prioritise reopening schools safely.
A phased and gradual opening of life in Northern Ireland is most likely what will be announced as long as infection rates continue to fall. It is highly likely a lot of restrictions will still be in place around Easter but as we move through March it is hoped we will start to see some being lifted.
Will things feel more normal by the summer?
This is debatable as the coronavirus pandemic has taken many twists and turns but Professor Andrew Hayward, a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) member, has said things could be “more or less back to normal for the summer” if the vaccine rollout goes to plan.
He said the fact the virus is a seasonal disease should allow a reopening by summer.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Once the most vulnerable people, particularly those over 50 and those with chronic illnesses, are vaccinated then yes I think we can see a significant return to normality.
“That, in addition to the fact coronavirus is a seasonal disease, I think will make a big difference and allow us to open up.
“I think what we’ll see is a phased opening up as the vaccination levels increase, and then we will be more or less back to normal for the summer, I would imagine.”
Prof Hayward told BBC News it is “difficult to say” whether mass gatherings would be a good idea and acknowledged that travel is something “that may still be affected”.
Asked about the use of the word “normal”, he said: “It is difficult to balance the language and I think it is right to signify that there is some light at the end of the tunnel here.”
As to whether we will be jumping on a plane to head abroad this summer, it could be another summer of staycations, all depending on how things progress.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said he is “optimistic” people will have “a great British summer”. He is due to set out the “operational plan” for hotel quarantines next week.
Speaking to Belfast Live last month, Belfast International Airport’s managing director Graham Keddie said he was hopeful he will see passengers take to the skies for holidays abroad this summer.
He said the vaccine was key in helping the aviation industry get back on its feet, especially for what is normally an extremely busy time over the summer months.
Talking about summer holidays, Mr Keddie said he wished he had a crystal ball to know for definite that the situation would be better but said he had booked a holiday himself and was hopeful for a better summer ahead.
“The airlines have been very, very good in terms of holiday companies rolling people’s bookings on and making sure they don’t lose out,” he said.
“I booked my summer holiday in July, that’s the sort of thing I think for all of us we want a bit of sun, a bit of warmth on our backs, I think cabin fever is probably setting in.
“Can we book with confidence? I think we can to some extent, particularly in terms in the vaccination programme, I think what we really need to see is governments internationally setting up programmes where if you are vaccinated, you can go in and out without quarantine.
“I think if we still have quarantine throughout Europe, it will seriously damage the summer, so hopefully as the vaccination gathers pace through the rest of Europe then we will see a change in government attitudes.”
Mr Keddie added that people needed to be “clever and sensible” about how they booked any holidays so they were covered in case of cancellations.
Will we be back in lockdown once winter hits again?
Professor Whitty said the virus “is not going to be eradicated from the globe or indeed eliminated from the UK” and could surge again in winter “because that’s what highly contagious respiratory viruses always do”.
He told the Downing Street briefing it should not be a surprise to anyone that even with a successful vaccine rollout and the jabs working well “there will still be residual risk”.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA), has said that some social distancing measures are likely to be needed throughout next winter to prevent a spike in deaths, largely among the unvaccinated.
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