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Normality is ‘some way off' and date cannot yet be set to end social distancing, health minister warns

 A yellow stripe painted to help shoppers to maintain social distancing in the middle of the pedestrian shopping street in Aalborg, Denmark, on May 4 2020. Picture by Henning Bagger/Ritzau scanpix via AP
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Health Minister Robin Swann has said normality remains “some way off” as he delivered a warning about the spread of the Delta Covid variant in Northern Ireland.

Executive ministers met today to discuss the latest relaxations of Covid restrictions.

They were given an Executive paper from Mr Swann in which he said he believed the north was not at a point yet to set a date for an end to social distancing.

The health minister said he expected to have data next week on the impact of infection rates following easements introduced in recent weeks.

He added: “In addition the emerging data from Great Britain on the progress of the Delta variant provide grounds for concern.

“We are not yet at the point where we can set a date for an end to social distancing, the use of face coverings or the other public health measures that have been so important throughout the pandemic.

“Normality, as we knew it in 2019, is still some way off.”

The variant, now named the Delta variant, was first confirmed in Northern Ireland in early May.

Read more: Interval between Covid-19 vaccine doses being shortened to better protect against Delta variant

Last week, a number of Delta cases were confirmed by health officials, with surge testing taking place in Kilkeel, Co Down, following the discovery of a small cluster.

Today the Public Health Agency (PHA) said it has identified 111 probable or confirmed cases of the Delta Covid variant in the north, 28 of which are in Kilkeel.

The PHA has been surge testing people in Kilkeel after a number of potential cases of the variant first identified in India were detected.

Dr Brid Farrell from the PHA said: "Examination of the data from before and during the enhanced testing reveals that since Monday May 30, there have been 50 Covid-19 positive cases (in Kilkeel).

"Of these, 28 are probable or confirmed cases of the Delta variant.

"Given the spread of the Delta variant across the UK, we are seeing a general increase in the number of cases in Northern Ireland.

"As of Wednesday, 111 probable and confirmed cases of the Delta variant have been detected throughout all 11 local council areas in Northern Ireland."

Meanwhile, Mr Swann’s paper said: “While the number of confirmed cases of the Delta variant remain small, the evidence from Great Britain indicates that this could change very rapidly.

“Testing in the last few days has indicated that up to 25% of new cases here may be Delta variant.

“Based on emerging data from GB, the current assessment is that Delta variant is likely to be 40-60% more transmissible than Alpha variant, and to be associated.

“In addition, while vaccination remains effective it is somewhat less effective against Delta variant compared with Alpha variant.

“In the event of the Delta variant becoming dominant, modelling indicates the potential for a significant fresh surge of positive cases and hospitalisations by late summer/early autumn.

“It needs to be emphasised that this is by no means inevitable.

“Modelling is not a prediction and there are many uncertainties in every potential scenario.

“It is essential that good levels of adherence to public health advice are maintained, alongside take-up of first and second vaccine doses.”

Mr Swann said surge testing when required would be carried out to respond to confirmed Delta variant cases and to prevent virus spread.

Speaking in Fermanagh, the outgoing first minister, Arlene Foster, said the Executive was concerned about the spread of the Delta variant.

She said: "Of the new cases that are recorded, about 20% of them are now thought to be Delta variant and therefore we do need to keep a very close eye on that as it develops.

"We know that the Delta variant is more transmissible, up to 40 to about 60% more transmissible, and therefore we need to make sure we continue to protect our citizens.

"But, having said that, we had a good discussion about the relaxation of restrictions, we have set them out, those will happen on June 21."

Read more: Highly transmissible Delta Covid-19 variant ‘poised to take hold' in Europe, WHO warns

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