Political leaders in Northern Ireland have expressed concern about the spread of the Delta variant of Covid-19, first reported in India.

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill held their last press conference together today in the former DUP leader's home town of Lisnaskea in Co Fermanagh.

Arlene Foster is expected to step down from her role in the coming days.

The two leaders said that the Northern Ireland Executive had made decisions to further relax some Covid-19 restrictions on 21 June.

However, this is an indicative date and will have to be ratified by the Executive on 17 June, taking the latest data into consideration.

Ms Foster said that "about 20% of new Covid-19 cases" recorded in Northern Ireland are thought to be the Delta variant.

"Therefore, we need to keep a very close eye on that," she added.

Michelle O’Neill said that because of the concern around the variant, people should continue to be cautious.

"We ask the public to be really, really careful. Mind yourself, mind your family, do not drop your guard and follow the public health advice," she urged.

The return of live music is among the measures due to be approved on 21 June.

Ms O’Neill said that musicians had been really hard hit during 15 months of not being able to work and she hoped they would welcome today’s news.

The Executive also agreed proposals to raise limits on social contact at home, allowing ten people from two households to meet indoors, again subject to ratification next week.

The number of people allowed to meet outdoors in a private garden will rise to 15 - from any number of households - on 21 June.

Normality some way off - Swann

Earlier, Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann said that normality remains "some way off" as he delivered a warning about the local spread of the Delta Covid variant.

Ministers received an Executive paper from Mr Swann in which he said he believed Northern Ireland was not at a point yet to set a date for an end to social distancing.

"While the number of confirmed cases of the Delta variant remain small, the evidence from Great Britain indicates that this could change very rapidly.

"Testing in the last few days has indicated that up to 25% of new cases here may be Delta variant," the paper stated.

Mr Swann's paper said: "Based on emerging data from [Britain], the current assessment is that Delta variant is likely to be 40%-60% more transmissible than Alpha (UK) variant, and to be associated.

"In addition, while vaccination remains effective it is somewhat less effective against Delta variant compared with Alpha variant.

"In the event of the Delta variant becoming dominant, modelling indicates the potential for a significant fresh surge of positive cases and hospitalisations by late summer/early autumn.

"It needs to be emphasised that this is by no means inevitable. Modelling is not a prediction and there are many uncertainties in every potential scenario."

The Delta variant was first confirmed in Northern Ireland in early May.

Last week, a number of Delta cases were confirmed by health officials, with surge testing taking place in Kilkeel, Co Down following the discovery of a small cluster.

The Public Health Agency (PHA) has said it has identified 111 probable or confirmed cases of the Delta Covid variant in Northern Ireland. Of these, 28 cases are in Kilkeel.

Dr Brid Farrell from the PHA said: "Examination of the data from before and during the enhanced testing reveals that since Monday 30 May, there have been 50 Covid-19 positive cases (in Kilkeel).

"Of these, 28 are probable or confirmed cases of the Delta variant. Given the spread of the Delta variant across the UK, we are seeing a general increase in the number of cases in Northern Ireland.

"As of Wednesday, 111 probable and confirmed cases of the Delta variant have been detected throughout all 11 local council areas in Northern Ireland."

Earlier today, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed that 91% of new cases in the UK were now down to the variant, throwing plans for England to fully reopen on 21 June into doubt.

"We're in a race between the virus and the vaccine," said Mr Hancock. "We're watching the hospitalisation data like a hawk."

Covid-19 case rates have increased across every region in England with a sharp rise in the North West, new figures show.


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