Northern Ireland’s Health Minister has restated his preference for a gradual emergence from lockdown.
Robin Swann advocated “safe and controlled measures” to avoid seeing the impact of the opening of many sectors at once adding up to an increase in the spread of Covid-19.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride, speaking separately on Tuesday, warned that a rush out of lockdown could prompt the worst wave of the virus yet.
Their comments came after First Minister Arlene Foster suggested revisiting Stormont’s decision on schools reopening after the announcement that schools in England will reopen to all pupils on March 8.
Last Thursday, the Stormont executive announced that some primary school pupils would return to class on March 8, with some older post-primary school children returning on March 22.
Ministers did not commit to a date for the full return of the wider school population.
The views appear to indicate the potential for disagreement between ministers when they meet on Thursday to discuss Northern Ireland’s pathway out of lockdown, which is set to be announced on Monday.
Mr Swann said he is “not aware” of any changes to medical advice over the return to schools.
He said Education Minister Peter Weir brought a paper over school reopening to the Executive last week, which he described as including two options.
“The second one was adopted by the entirety of the Executive unanimously,” Mr Swann said.
He said Dr McBride will make a presentation to ministers as to where he views the science.
Mr Swann said the vaccine programme “brings hope”, but that time is needed for recipients to develop antibodies.
“We have just under half a million people vaccinated with their first dose … we have to get those people time to develop the antibodies,” he told MLAs.
“It’s just not a matter of getting a needle in your arm and everything being fine.”
He noted vaccination teams have now completed their first visit to every care home in Northern Ireland, and compared that on January 11 there were 150 care homes with Covid outbreaks, and 46 today.
“We see the benefit of that vaccine programme but we also see the time that it takes for those individuals to really produce the benefits,” he said.
Mr Swann also announced on Tuesday the first confirmed cases of the South African variant Covid-19 in the region.
He said three cases of the variant had been confirmed.
“This development does not mean that this variant is going to become the most prevalent or the dominant strain in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“However, it does underline once again the very real need for continuing caution in relation to Covid-19.”
Earlier the DUP and Sinn Fein clashed over the return of schools after Mrs Foster pressed for the decision to be revisited.
Sinn Fein’s education spokesman Pat Sheehan accused Mrs Foster of flipping her position in response to Mr Johnson’s move.
“It’s disappointing that Arlene wants to go and make policy on the hoof in interviews on the TV last night.
“The only thing that has changed is that Boris Johnson has decided to make a decision for England,” he said.
Only vulnerable children and those of key workers have been in at mainstream schools in Northern Ireland since January.
The executive decided last week that primary school pupils in year groups P1 to P3 would return to face-to-face learning on March 8.
Pre-school and nursery children are also due to return on that date.
Ministers decided that secondary pupils in key exam years, year groups 12 to 14, will return to school on March 22.
The P1-P3 pupils will revert to remote learning for a week on that date, for the week prior to the Easter holidays, to minimise the impact on infection rates of years 12-14 returning.
No decisions were taken on whether other year groups will return to class after the Easter holidays.
The Department of Health announced on Tuesday that a further five people had died after testing positive for coronavirus.
Another 225 cases of the virus were also notified, as well as a total of 376 Covid positive patients in hospital, with 48 in intensive care.
Meanwhile Mr Swann said a special Covid-19 £500 payment to health and social care staff is unlikely to be paid during this financial year.
He told the Stormont Assembly that his officials are finalising the details of the special recognition payment, but said it is “highly unlikely” it will be made within this financial year, but will be processed “as quickly as possible”.