Northern Ireland's Health Minister Robin Swann has said current modelling suggests that if the Delta Covid variant becomes dominant in the region, there is the potential for a surge in hospitalisations by late summer.
But Mr Swann insisted this was “not inevitable” and said the actions of people now could still have a crucial bearing on the direction of the pandemic this summer.
The variant, which was first identified in India, is now the dominant strain in the UK and proving to be 60% more transmissible than the previously dominant Alpha strain.
The Public Health Agency said last week that 111 probable and confirmed cases of the Delta variant have been detected throughout all 11 local council areas, 28 of them in Kilkeel, Co Down.
Mr Swann said that the numbers in Northern Ireland remain low, but indicated this could change rapidly.
He said that if the Delta variant did become dominant in Northern Ireland, modelling indicated the potential for a surge of positive cases and hospitalisations by late summer/early autumn.
He added: “This is not inevitable. There are many uncertainties and we are far from powerless. We need a sustained effort in the coming weeks to stop the virus spreading. Our actions now will have a crucial bearing on how the situation develops.
“We can defend and sustain the progress we have all achieved over recent months. The ongoing rollout of our vaccination programme is central to that.
“It is essential that people keep coming forward for their first and second vaccine doses. The emerging evidence indicates that getting fully vaccinated with both doses is very important in terms of protection from the Delta variant.
“The more people we can get fully vaccinated, the better prepared we will be for any upturn in Covid cases down the line.
“This not a time for either complacency or alarmism. Caution must remain our guiding principle.”