The Northern Ireland Executive has called for “maximum adherence” to Covid restrictions – including the wearing of face masks – as it warns of the potential for the “rapid spread” of the Omicron variant.
And it has again said that people should be encouraged to work from home if they are able to do so.
At the same time, they are asking everyone to take regular lateral flow tests.
The Executive was responding after the first cases of Omicron were confirmed in Northern Ireland this week.
Ministers met today (Thursday) to discuss the latest situation regarding the COVID-19 Omicron variant and the next steps in its preparations to tackle it.
Afterwards, in a statement, the Executive said: “We know that people are following developments and many will be anxious about what it will mean for us here. Please be assured that we will keep the public updated as the situation develops.
“The emergence of Omicron is a cause for concern and we are urging everyone to be cautious. However, we don’t want people to panic.
“Our medical and scientific experts are monitoring the situation very closely, both in terms of what’s happening across these islands, and across the world.
“We have already activated our Autumn/Winter contingency plan. An early intervention was made to stall the progression of Omicron here with additional restrictions on travel and plans to identify any spread of the variant have been activated.
“Engagement has been taking place with administrations and public health officials across these islands. We await the emergence of further data in the coming days, which will allow for a scientific assessment of the variant and the impact it is likely to have.
“However, the evidence from elsewhere indicates that Omicron has potential to spread rapidly. That means it could have very serious implications for our health system, which is already under significant pressure.
“The situation is potentially very serious and that’s why it is vital that we all redouble our efforts to drive down community transmission.
“The ability to stop the virus from spreading rests with each of us and we are appealing to everyone to please do what we know works. Follow the simple steps that will help to get us through to the other side of Christmas and in to the New Year.
“Getting vaccinated, and taking the booster, is the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself and others. It will help to prevent serious illness and this will keep pressure off our hospitals.
“And we cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of everyone following the public health advice.
“Maximum adherence to the rules that are in place, including the wearing of face coverings, is necessary to mitigate against the need for more severe restrictions.
“We remind the public that the use of face coverings is a mandatory requirement in certain settings, not an optional extra.
“We call again today on every member of the workforce who can work from home to do so.
“We are asking everyone to take regular COVID-19 lateral flow tests, particularly if you are planning to mix with other people. This will be a crucial element in a package of measures that will help to stop transmission of the virus in the community.
“By taking a lateral flow test before you go out or meet up, you can help protect the people close to you and reduce the pressures on health and social care staff.
“Under the latest guidance, anyone who is meeting friends or family, or attending an event or social gathering should take a test before they go.
“It is particularly important to test before visiting someone who is older or more vulnerable. Regular twice weekly testing is also encouraged.
“It is also vital to continue with all the other precautions that are critically important in breaking the chain of transmission – such as keeping your distance from others; limiting your contacts; keeping indoor spaces well ventilated; and maintaining good hand and respiratory hygiene.
“This is a time when we need everyone to think about you and your family’s safety. But we also need you to think about others. And trust that they will do the same for you. Every stranger is someone else’s loved one.
“Please do all you can to protect yourself, protect others and protect our health service.”