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Editorial: Cause for optimism and caution on Covid

THE appalling events in Ukraine have understandably dominated headlines in recent weeks, after two years when the Covid pandemic seemed to overshadow every aspect of our lives.

But the fact that coronavirus has finally dropped down the news agenda should not make us complacent that its threat has gone.

Latest official figures provide cause for both optimism and caution, with infection rates in the community remaining very high.

The Department of Health yesterday reported 2,605 more Covid cases and, sadly, five deaths. This followed two days of infections being below the 2,000 mark.

While cases will fluctuate from day to day, a general increase was confirmed by the Office for National Statistics last week.

Its weekly testing sample, considered the most reliable measure of Covid rates because it includes people with no symptoms or who have not reported an infection, showed a rise in every region of the UK for the first time since January.

One in 13 people in Northern Ireland were estimated to be infected in the week, twice the rate in England. A further spike seems likely after people gather together over the St Patrick's holiday.

All of us will know people isolating with the virus and staff absences continue to cause problems for the NHS and schools. Today's edition also details how Belfast's St Peter's Cathedral was forced to temporarily close due to an outbreak among clergy and staff.

Of course, it should be no surprise that transmission has increased given that most restrictions were lifted last month. From Friday, travel rules are also due to be removed - welcome news for the industry and those planning holidays over Easter.

Such steps are possible because despite high case numbers, the success of the vaccination programme means the link between infections and serious illness has weakened.

While around 500 patients remain in hospital with Covid across the north, deaths have fallen and there was no-one being ventilated in intensive care yesterday for the first time since July last year.

Nevertheless, health minister Robin Swann sounded a welcome note of caution this week in asking the assembly to extend his department's powers to re-introduce restrictions for a further six months in case a new, more dangerous variant emerges.

While the picture certainly looks better than at any time since the outbreak began two years ago, the message must be to continue taking sensible precautions and ensure you are vaccinated to protect yourself and - most importantly - those who remain vulnerable around you.

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Leading article