First Minister Paul Givan said it is prudent for the Executive to prepare for the impact of the new coronavirus strain as he expressed concern at the rapid rate at which it is spreading in parts of Great Britain, where case numbers are doubling every two to three days.
Executive ministers were meeting yesterday to discuss potential options, although Mr Givan and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill expressed hope that no further restrictions will be required before Christmas.
Stormont’s leaders were commenting as they visited Lagan Valley Hospital, where Mr Givan received his Covid-19 booster jab at Lisburn Primary and Community Care Centre.
Northern Ireland’s booster programme has now opened up to people aged 40-49 who had their second dose of a vaccine less than six months ago.
Mr Givan, who is in that new cohort, stressed the importance of ramping up booster rates to bolster the population’s immunity ahead of the inevitable spread of omicron in the region.
The DUP minister said Northern Ireland is “behind the curve” when compared with the case numbers being recorded in England and Scotland and should be able to “get through the next number of weeks” before the new variant becomes dominant in the region.
“We don’t need to be panicking but we do need to recognise that what we are being advised is that this new variant is going to become a challenge for us in Northern Ireland early in the new year and we need to be ready for that,” he said.
“So preparation is taking place. That’s what some of the discussion will be at the Executive today, so that we have all of this thought through in terms of what may be necessary.
“That’s why I’ve said ‘Don’t panic’ but we, as leaders of the Executive, need to make sure that proper preparedness is in place and we look at a range of scenarios, and obviously we hope that we don’t need to be doing anything whenever it comes to further restrictions that are being in place but it is prudent for us to be considering these things.”
Ms O’Neill said Northern Ireland is facing a “very serious situation”.
The Sinn Fein vice president said it is likely that omicron will interrupt lives.
“We want to avoid introducing restrictions, we want to keep people open and safe,” she said.
“We want to take the pressure off the health service but, ultimately, I think it’s inevitable that at some point the omicron variant is going to cause difficulties for our health service, but also economically because I think it is going to interrupt lives if it spreads in the way in which it potentially can, and the evidence shows from elsewhere that it will spread rapidly.
“So that will have an impact in terms of services, I would imagine.
“But we’re working to try to avoid introducing restrictions. We don’t want to be in that space. But we do think that by early in the new year this strain will be the dominant strain.”
The leaders of the powersharing administration also stressed the need to address poor enforcement of Covid-19 rules in Northern Ireland.
Public concerns have been expressed at the lack of action being taken to ensure compliance with rules such as mask-wearing.
The latest figures from the Department of Health at Stormont show another four coronavirus deaths in the latest 24-hour reporting period.
That brings the total death toll reported by the department since the beginning of the pandemic to 2,916.
Meanwhile, another 1,819 cases have been recorded.
In the past week, a total of 12,281 people have tested positive for the virus in Northern Ireland.
The average number of people testing positive for the virus each week is now on par with the figures recorded after Christmas last year — the highest on record in Northern Ireland.
While the pressure on the hospital system remains high, with 338 patients with coronavirus yesterday morning, the number of hospital admissions remains low compared with the same time last year when the vaccination programme had just begun.