Virus levels still low in NI ahead of reopening date despite worries over Indian variant, says BMA NI chair

Coronavirus infection levels remain low in Northern Ireland despite concerns about the Indian variant spreading across the UK, the chair of a leading medical body has said.

Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 7:01 am
Pubs, restaurants and hotels are expected to reopen indoors in Northern Ireland on Monday

This comes as preparations continue with the next step out of lockdown set to arrive on Monday when pubs, restaurants, hotels, cafes and a host of other businesses expect to welcome customers indoors again for the first time in months.

The next phase of reopening still has to be rubberstamped by the Stormont Executive when it meets on Thursday.

Concerns have been raised in Great Britain about the spread of the so-called ‘Indian variant’ of coronavirus, with Downing Street warning this could mean planned announcements on easing social distancing, and plans for domestic coronavirus “passports” might have to be pushed back.

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The Indian variant has been detected in Northern Ireland, but case numbers remain low.

Dr Tom Black, who chairs the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland committee, said that the overall infection rate remains low here ahead of the next big reopening date.

“The overall rate is 32.7 (per 100,000) as of lunchtime today,” he told the News Letter on Monday.

“It was 33.4 last week so there’s been no increase in the overall infection rate. Derry and Strabane has still got the highest rate of infection but if you look at it over the past week, only seven of those 151 cases were amongst those over 60-years-old.

“That’s an incredible statistic. Basically, if you’re over 60 you’re not likely to be catching this infection. That tells us that the vaccines are holding up well.”

On the Indian variant, he said: “Now, we wouldn’t have as many cases of the Indian variant as the north of England would have and we wouldn’t expect the same number of infections but it’s obviously a variant of concern and we need to keep an eye on it.

“When you get a new variant in, you obviously worry about whether the vaccine is going to work or not. The initial impression is that the vaccine is holding up against the Indian variant.

“Now, we don’t have robust data yet but that is being worked on. Certainly, there hasn’t been a big increase in hospital admissions so the first indications are not negative at the moment.”

Asked if he was concerned about an increase in socialising indoors amongst largely unvaccinated young people next week when the hospitality industry gets back to business, Dr Black said: “It’s always a worry, particularly if the young people transmit the infections on to their granny. Our big worry this time last year was that young people might get infected and even if they didn’t get sick themselves, they would pass it on to their grannies. Now, their granny – thank goodness – is vaccinated.”