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Editorial: Cautious optimism as restrictions eased

The easing of Covid restrictions by the Stormont Executive has provided a more positive start to the new year than could have been foreseen early last month when Omicron cases were rocketing.

Although much more infectious than the Delta variant, thankfully cases have not translated into very high numbers of severe illness and hospital admission.

Clearly, the push to get people vaccinated and the rollout of the booster, along with careful behaviour over the past few weeks, has helped to protect many of us.

But there is still significant pressure on the health service in terms of staff absence due to Covid, so we need to do what we can to minimise the spread of this infection.

There is no doubt the announced relaxation of restrictions in relation to pubs and restaurants will come as a huge relief to the hospitality sector which has faced extreme challenges during the pandemic.

From yesterday, the limit of six per table has been lifted while from next Wednesday, Covid passports will be dropped for entry to pubs, restaurants and cinemas. Vaccine certification will still be required for nightclubs - which can reopen from January 26 - and indoor unseated or partially seated events with 500 or more people.

Ministers also agreed to end the cap on the number of households meeting inside domestic settings while the guidance on working from home has eased.

Remaining Covid restrictions, including the legal requirement to wear face coverings, will be reviewed by the executive on February 10.

And while there was a sense of optimism following Thursday's meeting, both Robin Swann and Michelle O'Neill sounded a note of caution and urged people to continue following the guidance.

This is essential as we are plainly not out of the woods, as demonstrated by the sharp increase in cases among teachers and pupils last week. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland recorded a further six deaths and 3,568 cases yesterday.

The current high transmission rates would suggest that mask wearing will be with us for some time while social distancing and ensuring good ventilation in indoor settings remain sensible precautions that we can all take.

What we have learned over the past two years is that nothing is certain, especially when it comes to new variants that can derail the best laid plans.

However, we are moving in the right direction and that will give us grounds for optimism.

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