Caution essential as we step out of lockdown
THE significant and enormously welcome package of lockdown relaxations sends a clear signal that the fight against Covid is being won.
It is, of course, a long way from being over; this is neither the time to lower our guard nor become complacent.
How closely we are able to follow the timetable easing restrictions will be contingent on developments in key Covid-19 data.
This includes deaths, infection rates and the number of Covid-positive patients receiving hospital treatment, including intensive care.
These have all moved in the right direction since Christmas, emphasising the success of both the vaccination programme and lockdown.
Vaccines are offering vital protection to anyone who has so far availed of an injection, especially those at most risk of falling seriously ill.
Concerns have been raised around safety, particularly in relation to the Astra Zeneca vaccine and a rare form of blood clot.
These need to be - and are being - thoroughly investigated, with any danger balanced against the far greater and clearly understood risks associated with contracting Covid.
The lockdown restrictions, though painful and onerous, have undoubtedly slowed the spread of the virus.
But this course of action comes at huge cost, including to the economy, mental health and children's education and welfare.
The focus on Covid has had a demonstrably negative effect on other areas of health and social care, for example in cancer treatment and waiting lists for surgery. This needs to be urgently addressed, as health minister Robin Swann acknowledged this week.
Lockdown is the bluntest of blunt instruments against Covid-19, and it is imperative that it does not need to be employed again.
Key to ensuring that is better testing and contact tracing, which will allow a more targeted and localised approach to controlling the virus.
In this context, Mr Swann has announced an important change in the north's Covid testing regime.
Now, all close contacts of confirmed cases will be asked to take a PCR-type test within 48 hours of being identified, whether or not they have symptoms.
Expanding testing to include asymptomatic contacts, who may unknowingly be carrying the virus, along with enhanced contact tracing will, said Mr Swann, "help keep us one step ahead in interrupting transmission".
Staying ahead of the virus will be a challenge as the restrictions ease in coming weeks, but it is one that we can all play a role in by maintaining vigilance and acting for the common good.