Covid-19: 'Scales tipping' in favour of easing restrictions

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media captionTime right for executive to ease more restrictions, says Swann

The "scales are tipping" in favour of accelerating the process of relaxing restrictions, the health minister has said.

Robin Swann said the time was right for the executive to further ease restrictions, including giving some indicative dates.

He said this would offer people and businesses some optimism.

He added the guiding principle "has to be the promotion of personal and societal well-being".

"That includes giving people more opportunities to meet up with family and friends outdoors in as safe a way as possible," Mr Swann said.

He said it it should also mean reopening hairdressers and barbers and "considering even people getting back to their caravans earlier than we would have thought feasible only a short time ago".

The NI Executive is due to meet on Thursday with ministers expected to outline dates for the lifting of Covid restrictions around hairdressers and non-essential retail.

Mr Swann warned that "Covid fatigue risks itself mutating into Covid despair".

"Frustration is growing and if unchecked, it may impact on adherence with public health advice," he said.

But he said easing lockdown measures would bring risks.

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image captionGarden centres are allowed to open again from Monday

"Despite the success of our vaccination programme, as people mix more, the virus will spread more, with all that may mean," he told the weekly health press briefing on Wednesday.

"That's how serious this still is. Against that, of course, we also cannot stay in lockdown for ever.

"That would be catastrophic for our society, not least in terms of our physical and mental well-being."

Mr Swann said people must remain vigilant.

"We have to do our best to strike the correct balance. That remains extremely difficult."

'Hopeful'

Earlier on Wednesday, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said hospital numbers and intensive care numbers are falling, and vaccinations are rising.

"I am hopeful that tomorrow the executive will be able to sign off on dates on what it looks like for the next number of months," Ms O'Neill told MLAs.

"It is the hope that people want. It's important that we give people something to look forward to in the weeks and months ahead."

On Monday, outdoor retailers such as garden centres, car washes and garages were allowed to reopen.

Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Michael McBride said there was "headroom" and restrictions could be eased on a phased basis as agreed.

He said there had been a modest increase in the daily average of new positive cases, which may be due to the effect of the Easter holidays.

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image captionChief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Michael McBride said there was "headroom" and restrictions could be eased on a phased basis

"The increase has occurred across all age groups - significant increases across all age cohorts. That demonstrates the importance of following advice and limiting our contacts as much as possible."

Both the minister and the chief medical officer emphasised the importance of fresh air.

"We must make fresh air our friend, and let our fresh air blow those Covid particles away" Mr Swann said.

The CMO added that there was a "yellow card" scheme in place to monitor any potential side effects or adverse reactions from vaccinations or any medicines.

He said the blood clots reported in small numbers worldwide after an AstraZeneca first dose were extremely rare events, and that Covid itself causes clots.

Asked if there had been any clots or deaths reported in Northern Ireland, Dr. McBride said it would be premature to make any comment before the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had investigated.

The minister said current estimates are that 87% of those aged over 50 have been vaccinated in Northern Ireland.

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