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Premature to follow England's lead on masks

After almost a year-and-a-half of lockdown, most of us are understandably fatigued by ongoing restrictions.

Although Northern Ireland has opened up significantly, theatres are still closed and indoor live music events are restricted to “an ambient sound level only”.

While the removal of a cap on the number of people allowed at outdoor events is to be welcomed, a return to normal seems far off.

The highly-contagious Delta variant now accounts for three-quarters of Covid cases in the north.

Chief Medical Officer, Sir Michael McBride, has warned that the north is experiencing a fourth wave of the virus.

And he predicted an increase in hospitalisations, with up to 400 Covid patients in hospital by the end of the summer.

A further 420 new cases were reported yesterday as numbers rise rapidly.

By contrast, weekly figures up to June 29 showed an average of 218 new cases a day.

The Republic's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, has already said "all of Western Europe" will experience a spike in cases.

Dr Holohan said last week that medics cannot stop the Delta wave but can slow down its transmission.

To this end, the drive to vaccinate as many people as possible, particularly young people, has ramped up over the last few weeks.

Pop-up testing and vaccination clinics have been set up in Covid hotspots across Northern Ireland.

Mobile clinics were held in Belfast and Co Down over the weekend.

Walk-in vaccinations have been available for over-18s at the SSE Arena in Belfast since June 27.

Other walk-in appointments are available at Seven Towers Leisure Centre in Ballymena, Co Antrim, and Foyle Arena in Derry.

If 90 per cent of the north's population gets their first vaccination by the end of this month, Covid-related hospital admissions could be reduced by half.

With warnings about the Delta variant, plans to lift most Covid restrictions in England from July 19 seem premature.

The announcement that the wearing of face masks will be voluntary puts the onus on the individual, rather than government.

Wearing face masks is a minor inconvenience to most, given that they can prevent the spread of a potentially life-threatening disease.

As cases continue to rise, now is not the time to relax mask-wearing and social distancing rules.

It is imperative that Stormont ministers continue to proceed with caution and relax lockdown measures only when it is safe to do so.

Clear public health messaging, including around the wearing of masks, is essential if we are to prevent a tightening of restrictions in the autumn.

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