Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann has urged people who do not believe Covid-19 poses a real threat to “stay in the house”.
He also said that anyone who believes the virus is a hoax is “deluded”.
“I have a very simple message: I would ask them just to stay in the house, stay out of the road, because if they think this is a hoax, talk to a nurse, talk to a doctor, talk to a hospital porter, talk to someone who is currently working across our health service or a care home to see the reality of what Covid actually means,” he told the BBC.
“If they think this is some sort of a great hoax that has been manipulated across the world, never mind just here in Northern Ireland, they are deluded.”
Thirteen more Covid-19-linked deaths were announced in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, the highest daily total since May.
The Department of Health figures also revealed there were 360 patients with Covid-19 being treated in hospital, with 38 in intensive care.
The numbers being treated in hospital have surpassed the peak of the first wave of 322 on April 8.
Mr Swann described the figures as “heartbreaking” and urged the public to “dig in” and follow public health advice.
“I never thought we would be getting back to seeing deaths in double figures after where we were back in May,” he said.
“I am asking people now to dig in, follow the regulations and the advice the Executive is putting out, because we have seen in regard to the number of positive cases decreases of those, significant decreases especially in Derry City and Strabane, sitting in the region now of roughly 480 cases per 100,000. Fourteen days ago there were nearly 1,000.
“We are a week and a half into the current restrictions across the whole of Northern Ireland and we are starting to see a small decrease.”
With schools set to reopen next week, Mr Swann said work is under way to address concerns around the school gates, transport and extra school activities.
“There’s a piece of work being done there to make sure we can reduce those opportunities again for the chance of infection,” he said.
Mr Swann also said there will be “challenges to what we perceive as being a normal Christmas”, but he urged people to continue the “spirit of Christmas” by supporting loved ones and celebrating together.
“I think we can do that, I think if we pull together for the next two and a half weeks, we can get to a better place come the end of the year and come Christmas,” he said.
Earlier a senior doctor claimed this week has been the “worst in the NHS in living memory”.
Dr Tom Black, chairman of the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland Council, said hospitals are being hit with a “triple whammy” of rising numbers of Covid-19 cases, lack of available staff and winter pressures.
He added the second wave of the pandemic in Northern Ireland “appears worse” than the first earlier this year.
He warned of a “very, very difficult month” ahead, adding: “To be frank, it’s the worst I have seen it in my 35-plus year career and that would be the same for all doctors in Northern Ireland, we have never seen anything like this.
“This is the worst week in the NHS probably in living memory and the concern is that next week will be worse.
“We are hitting a triple whammy – we have a pandemic, huge numbers of staff off sick and winter pressures, all three at the same time. We have never had to deal with this before with a system that works at near capacity usually.”
Dr Black urged support for hospitals and more restrictions for the public in Northern Ireland to stem the spread of the virus.
“We need to make it very clear to the public that we have a very, very difficult month ahead of us,” he added.