Northern Ireland will experience an “inevitable payback” in coronavirus infections as a result of easing restrictions over Christmas, the chief medical officer has warned.
Dr Michael McBride said any relaxations would have an impact on hospital admissions, as he stressed the need for people to have a “careful” Christmas.
He acknowledged that people would travel home from overseas, and families would seek to get together over the festive break, whether the executive advised against it or not.
“In January we are likely to see an increase in the number of cases in Northern Ireland and that will be the payback, I think the inevitable payback, for any relaxations that there are over the Christmas period,” he said.
Dr McBride added: “We just need to be mindful of the fact that this virus hasn’t gone away for Christmas. It doesn’t take any down time.
“It’ll be there and it’ll be there when we come together and it spreads best when we come together indoors.”
He said the executive had yet to finalise how restrictions would be eased for Christmas, but he anticipated an increase in the number of households able to congregate for a set number of days.
He said it was important that period did not exceed the length of time it takes for case numbers to double.
Dr McBride suggested it could last for five days but should not extend to seven or more.
He said the anticipated rise in case numbers in January increased the importance of ensuring Stormont’s new year retail voucher scheme was managed properly to avoid large crowds congregating in shops.
In a weekly media briefing, the chief medical officer expressed hope that the region was beginning to see the end of the first phase of the pandemic, expressing confidence that the roll-out of vaccines would reduce the need for restrictions come spring.
But he stressed: ”We have a long and difficult next number of months ahead of us and I think that it’s important we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves.
“The last thing I would want to do is convey a message that it’s all going to be all right now – it’s not.
“We need to get through the next weeks and months.
“Vaccines will not see us through this winter. They will make spring and summer different, and they may make a very significant difference to next winter, but it will be the current restrictions and the current measures and the current advice that will get us through this winter.”
Dr McBride said it was “unlikely” that all restrictions would lift come the spring, but he predicted measures would be much less severe.
“I think that by the spring, vaccines will be doing much of the heavy lifting and much of the restrictions that we are using to keep this virus in check will be increasingly less likely to be needed, particularly as we head into the summer months,” he said.
He added: “This virus isn’t going to go away. I don’t think we will ever eradicate this virus.
“But there is the prospect that over future years that we may be living with this virus in the same way that we currently live with the seasonal flu virus.
“I think that is a realistic possibility, but it will only be with the mass production of safe and highly effective vaccines and the public taking up the offer of those vaccines.”