Northern Ireland should delay lifting lockdown until after Easter in a bid to finally beat Covid-19, an expert has said.
r Connor Bamford, a virologist from Queen’s University, said the region must seize the opportunity to prevent further shutdowns by lifting restrictions in a gradual and measured way.
And he warned that opening schools before April will result in Northern Ireland enduring another deadly surge of Covid-19.
Dr Bamford was speaking as a further 11 Covid-19 related deaths were reported here, with 176 new cases – the lowest number of daily cases since September.
However, there were still 437 Covid inpatients, of which 58 were in intensive care.
One in four adults here has now been vaccinated.
A total of 391,101 people had received a first dose as of Saturday, according to the Department of Health, equivalent of 20.7% of the region’s total population, and 26.9% of people aged 18 and over.
Nationally, more than 15m people in the UK have had their first jab, in what Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed as an “extraordinary feat”. It comes just over two months after the first dose was given to Northern Ireland woman Margaret Keenan on December 8.
The falling cases and rising vaccinations have prompted calls for an accelerated release from lockdown.
The Executive in Northern Ireland is due to consider its next steps on Thursday.
However, Dr Bamford sounded a note of caution, warning: “We’ve got it wrong in the past and we have a chance now to get it right.
“We could really mess things up by having another wave and having to go into another lockdown. We have made the same mistake a couple of times by opening up too soon.
“We need to get cases down as low as possible before we start to ease restrictions – we saw what happened when the schools went back last September and we never really got on top of community transmission from there.
“If we lift restrictions in March when we are still seeing a significant number of cases in the community, we will see another spike in cases.
“We have vaccinated a lot of people, but most people have only had their first dose so don’t have the best protection possible, and we still don’t have a lot of data around whether the vaccine prevents transmission.
“However, I think we will be in a good place to start to reopen schools in April when cases will be much lower and if we do things gradually, we will be going into the summer months with most vulnerable people vaccinated, we will also be vaccinating the general population and we may even have booster vaccines for any variants that may pop up.
“We will be in a much better position come autumn and if we do things properly now and keep cases down low, we will likely need some restrictions over the winter but they will not be anywhere near as severe as what we are currently experiencing.
“It’s everything to play for now on whether this is going to be the last lockdown.
“No-one likes lockdowns, no-one likes restrictions but if we get this right, we can beat Covid without any further lockdowns.”
On Sunday Dr Tom Black, the chairman of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland, said it would be a “big ask” to reopen secondary schools on March 8. Schools were closed until at least that date at the start of January.
But speaking on BBC NI’s Sunday Politics programme, he said the reopening of primary schools was more likely because transmission infection in younger children is much lower.
While the number of seriously ill Covid-19 patients is dropping, there is still significant pressure on hospitals across Northern Ireland, with 754 people waiting longer than 12 hours in emergency departments from February 2 to 8.
And last week, Health Minister Robin Swann said the number of close contacts of positive cases remains too high and suggests that some people are not adhering to the stay at home message.