Northern Ireland’s health minister has said the “scales are tipping” in favour of accelerating the process of relaxing lockdown restrictions.
Robin Swann was speaking ahead of a meeting of the Stormont Executive on Thursday, when ministers will formally review the coronavirus regulations.
Earlier, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill indicated that ministers will agree a timetable of reopenings that will cover several months.
The powersharing executive in Belfast has faced criticism for not incorporating indicative dates into its blueprint for exiting Covid-19 lockdown.
Speaking at an Executive press conference, Mr Swann said he believes that the “time is now right” to proceed with further easing of restrictions, including some indicative dates.
Referring to frustration with the lockdown which has been in place since December, Mr Swann said “Covid fatigue risks itself mutating into Covid despair”.
He said he wants people to have more opportunities to meet up with family and friends outdoors in as safe a way as possible.
“It should also mean getting the hairdressers and barbers back to work, as should it mean more businesses opening and considering even people getting back to their caravans earlier than we would have thought feasible only a short time ago,” he said.
“I can confirm that my department has now fed into the central process and whilst I will not pre-empt any decisions ahead of tomorrow’s Executive, I do hope the agreed review will show clear signs of positivity after it.”
Mr Swann also sounded some notes of caution.
He said easing any lockdown measure inevitably comes with some risks, and as people mix more the virus will spread more.
“That’s how serious this still is. Against that, of course, we also cannot stay in lockdown forever. That would be catastrophic for our society, not least in terms of our physical and mental wellbeing,” he said.
“We have to remain careful and vigilant. We have to do our best to strike the correct balance.
“We now have the Covid vaccines as our additional line of defence. It is essential that we maintain our momentum with the vaccination programme.
“Vaccines are our best defence and shield against Covid.”
Ms O’Neill told her Assembly scrutiny committee earlier that progress in suppressing the virus meant ministers were now in a position where they could provide projected timelines.
First Minister Arlene Foster has already expressed hope that opening dates for close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, and non-essential retail will be announced after the meeting
The hospitality sector is also hopeful that it might get some good news on Thursday, particularly in respect of outdoor trading.
Ms O’Neill suggested that relaxation plans emerging from the meeting would cover several months.
“Myself and Arlene have been speaking with officials for some time saying that we wanted to see dates put to this (the lockdown exit plan),” she told the Executive Office committee.
“So I’m glad that now, I’m hopeful actually that tomorrow the Executive will be able to sign off on dates on what it look likes for the next number of months.”
Ms O’Neill said given recent events in the region, an apparent reference to bouts of street disorder that have flared this month, it was important to give people “something to look forward to in the weeks and months ahead”.
But she added: “We need to be careful because even though we’re able to open things up, we don’t want to go into reverse, so let’s keep going forward.”
She added: “We think we’ll have a very hopeful and positive announcement to make tomorrow.”
Northern Ireland took some further gradual steps out of lockdown on Monday.
The remainder of post-primary students, years eight to 11, returned to schools while a limited number of outdoor-focused retail outlets, such as garden centres and car dealerships, reopened.
The “stay-at-home” messaging was also replaced with “stay local” advice.
At the weekend, Northern Ireland reached the milestone of one million vaccine jabs having been given.
Other relaxations on Monday saw the number of people who can meet outdoors in a garden, including children, increase from six to 10.
Click-and-collect services for non-essential retail also resumed.
Outdoor sports training is now allowed for recognised clubs, in groups of up to 15, provided all indoor facilities except toilets remain closed.
The number of people allowed to attend marriage and civil partnership ceremonies has also increased, at a level informed by a risk assessment for the venue.
The death one further patient who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 was announced in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, along with another 97 cases of the virus.
On Wednesday morning, there were 70 Covid-positive patients in hospital, of whom eight were in intensive care.