From the moment the Northern Ireland Executive announced a fresh lockdown would come into force at the end of last year, the question on everyone’s lips was, “how long will it last?”.
his is, of course, completely understandable.
Our children’s education has been put on hold, some businesses have been shuttered for the best part of 12 months and cancer operations have been cancelled indefinitely – there is no part of life that hasn’t been affected by the pandemic.
Failure to implement a strict lockdown, which would have resulted in the total collapse of the health service, could never have been considered a viable alternative.
But almost seven weeks on and patience is beginning to wear thin.
So, a warning from the chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, that restrictions may remain in place until next year was a crushing blow.
However, was it really unexpected?
His words could be regarded as a cold dose of realism for those who want to book a fortnight of summer sun, even to those who insist on going grocery shopping with the entire family in tow.
Like Dr McBride said yesterday, this virus does not have a rule book and it does not follow our schedule.
As we have already seen, by the emergence of the Kent variant in the run up to Christmas, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the behaviour of a virus.
What we do know is that SARS-CoV-2 will, like all viruses, continue to mutate.
Where and when this might happen is impossible to predict, so too is whether these mutations will be more infectious, lead to more severe illness or be resistant to the existing vaccines.
These factors will play a crucial role in how we get out of lockdown and that is why it is so important that we pay particular attention to our borders to reduce the risk of new variants taking hold in Northern Ireland.
At the same time, the successful roll out of the vaccination programme is vital if we want life to return to normal.
Dr McBride has said 80% of the population should be vaccinated before restrictions can be lifted entirely.
He has also warned that any relaxation of the current measures must be done as slowly as possible, giving a timescale of up to nine months before restrictions can be removed entirely.
So, what does this mean for schools and businesses in Northern Ireland?
The Executive has stressed that a return to school is its priority, but it is looking increasingly unlikely that all pupils will return to class on March 8 as so many people had hoped.
Even if the pressures on the health service have reduced sufficiently and adequate numbers of people have been vaccinated to allow an increase in mixing by then, Dr McBride has said he is in favour of a gradual return for schools.
This could mean some year groups returning, or perhaps a part-time return to class for all.
Then, a number of weeks must pass to allow the experts to assess the impact on the rate of infection.
With the presence of a new more infectious variant, which Dr McBride has described as a sleek sports car compared to the older “Ford Fiesta” strain, the number of positive cases is expected to rise once schools reopen.
If cases increase too quickly, any further relaxations would have to be put on the long finger.
Dr McBride has said he is hopeful that we will be able to enjoy a summer similar to the one we experienced last year, but even that was full of limitations.
He has further warned that he expects restrictions will be ramped back up again when autumn arrives.
What this will mean depends on so many factors, including how many people have been vaccinated, how successful the vaccines are at slowing the spread of the virus, the state of play regarding mutations and the ability of the health service to cope with a surge.
People quite rightly want answers, but the reality is it is impossible to predict what is going to happen.
One day in this pandemic can seem like a lifetime and with the landscape constantly changing, it can be difficult to know how a day will end, let alone when it will be possible to meet up with friends, go for dinner, reopen the high street, or head off on holiday.
Of course, Dr McBride can only offer his advice, it will be up to the politicians to choose the path we follow.
But the warning from the chief medical officer is clear – get this wrong and we will see another deadly wave of the virus which will overshadow the one from which we are emerging.