Northern Ireland has recorded its lowest daily case rate since September, in the clearest sign yet that lockdown is working.
hile the number of diagnosed cases is traditionally lower on a Monday due to the way tests are carried out and reported upon, it is clear that the figures are declining.
The seven-day case rate is down to 2,921 compared to 3,770 over the previous seven-days, raising hopes that brighter days are ahead.
While the figures suggest that the effects of six-weeks of tough lockdown measures are now beginning to be felt, it is also hoped that the reduction in case numbers may also be in part due to the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines.
Health trusts have now visited all care homes across Northern Ireland and the figures are showing a welcome trend in the older age groups, with the seven-day case rate in the over-80s and 60 to 79-year-olds standing at 162 and 432 respectively.
The vaccine programme in Northern Ireland is continuing at pace.
According to latest figures, 301,279 vaccines have been administered, of which 275,232 were first doses and 26,047 were second doses.
This means that roughly 14% of the population has now received at least one dose of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
Experts have said the vaccines will play an important role in helping Northern Ireland navigate its way safely out of the pandemic but in order to be successful, it is crucial that as many people as possible receive the jab.
The Department of Health has said it hopes to begin a mass vaccination programme to the general population this summer after it has been rolled out to the priority groups.
Newly published data from the UK’s medication regulatory body has provided further reassurance over the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines.
Figures from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) shows 22,820 reports of suspected side effects in just over six weeks.
This equates to an overall reporting rate of three in 1,000 doses of vaccine that was administered between December 9, 2020 and January 24.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said: “This reassuring data has shown that the vast majority of reported side effects are mild and all are in line with most types of vaccine, including the seasonal flu vaccine.
“These are sore arms and mild flu-like symptoms, which reflect a normal immune response to vaccines and are short-lasting”.
One of Northern Ireland’s top health bosses has said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the worst pressures on hospitals have passed.
In the weeks after Christmas, the health service in Northern Ireland came close to collapse as exhausted staff warned of the possibility that critical care beds may be rationed.
Wendy Magowan, interim director of operations at the Northern Trust, said at the end of last week that it appears as though the number of Covid-19 patients in wards and ICU is beginning to plateau.
And the latest figures from the Department of Health also appear to reflect that the curve is finally being flattened.
According to statistics released on Monday afternoon, there were 570 Covid-19 inpatients, of which 60 were in intensive care.
While the figures are still high, they are significantly lower than just a few weeks ago at the end of January, when there were 657 Covid-19 inpatients, providing further hope that the peak is over.
Offering protection from Covid-19 is a crucial strand to the vaccination programme.
However, equally important is the ability of the vaccine to reduce transmission rates.
Afterall, the vaccine could potentially be seen as more dangerous if it increases the number of people who are walking around unwittingly shedding the virus as they don’t have any symptoms.
However, Oxford-AstraZeneca has said that recent tests have shown the potential for the vaccine to reduce asymptomatic transmission of the virus.
The results are based on weekly swabs taken from volunteers participating in the UK trial.
The pharmaceutical giant has also said that primary analysis of phase three clinical trials from UK, Brazil and South Africa have confirmed its vaccine is safe and effective at preventing Covid-19, with no severe cases and no hospitalisations more than 22 days after the first dose.
… but reasons for caution remain
Health bosses and medical unions have warned that staff are at breaking point.
It has already been reported that some intensive care and theatre nurses have quit their jobs due to the trauma of working through the pandemic.
Meanwhile, it has been estimated that one in 10 of people who catch Covid-19 will go on to suffer from serious long-term health issues.
Given the fact that so many healthcare workers have fallen ill with the virus, it is likely that a significant number will be unable to work in the coming months.
Some may be unable to ever return to work.
The health service in Northern Ireland was already massively overstretched before the pandemic.
The impact on the workforce and the ability of the service to care for patients is going to be hugely compromised as Northern Ireland moves beyond the pandemic.
South Africa has put its rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on hold after a study showed “disappointing” results against its new Covid variant.
The trial, involving some 2,000 people, found that the vaccine offered “minimal protection” against mild and moderate cases.
But experts are hopeful that the vaccine will still be effective at preventing severe cases.
In Northern Ireland, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is being rolled out by GP surgeries, with patients over the age of 70 and the majority of clinically vulnerable patients the majority of those receiving the jab.
While Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride has moved to offer reassurances on the development, it once again raises concerns over the impact of variants and the vaccines’ ability to offer protection against them.
The issue of borders and quarantine centres continues to be a political hot potato.
Dr McBride has said there are no known cases of the South African variant yet in Northern Ireland, however, he has warned “it is only a matter of time” before this happens.
A succession of experts has argued the case for blanket quarantine for any new arrivals into the island of Ireland.
They have warned that the only way to stop dangerous variants from taking hold in Northern Ireland is by implementing strict border measures urgently.
Despite this, the Executive has not yet made a decision on quarantine centres, raising fears that a vaccine resistant mutant strain could become the dominant strain.
This could potentially prove catastrophic for the vaccine programme and result in another deadly wave of the virus.
As time passes and the number of positive cases continue to fall, the politicians will come under increasing pressure to lift the lockdown.
First on the agenda, according to the Executive, is the reopening of schools.
As the education of a generation of children has been put on hold, ministers have stressed they are determined that schools will reopen as soon as it is safe to do so.
However, given the impact on positive cases when schools reopened last September, any decisions will have to be taken carefully.
It may be possible for pupils to return to school, but this may have to happen in a staggered way with reduced attendance for children.
It is also likely that restrictions will remain in place for some time on retailers, close contact services and the hospitality sector in order to mitigate against the effects of schools reopening.
The public is now well and truly fed up of Covid-19, people want their lives back, so now it is up to the Executive to balance this while stopping any more spikes and lockdowns.
The health trusts have now visited all care homes across Northern Ireland to offer the Covid-19 vaccine to residents and staff.
Most people have had two doses and it is hoped that this is offering them significant protection against the virus.
However, until there is proof that the vaccines stop the spread of the virus and it has been rolled out to the general population, it is unlikely that the draconian restrictions on visiting will be lifted.
Health bosses will want to know that infection rates are dropping and that the majority of those who become unwell only suffer minor illness before they allow people to mix once again.
Significant social distancing measures are likely to remain in place well into the summer months while the mass vaccination programme begins and health bosses have even warned some restrictions may be required next winter.
In fact, Dr McBride has even said that “until everyone is safe, no-one is safe”, meaning that the vaccination programme must be carried out on a global basis, with even the poorest countries getting access to supplies of the jab.
While the virus is circulating freely, foreign travel will continue to present a danger, as will the possibility of vaccine resistant strains of Covid-19.