Northern Ireland's chief medical adviser has warned that it will not be possible to stem the spread of Covid-19 if the hospitality sector reopens as planned on 13 November and schools also remain open.
Schools in Northern Ireland reopened this morning after an extended two-week Halloween break.
Tougher restrictions introduced earlier this month, which included pubs, restaurants and cafes only being allowed to open for takeaway service, are due to end on 13 November, just over two weeks before Level 5 restrictions in the Republic are scheduled to end.
This would mean pubs and restaurants would remain closed south of the border while those in Northern Ireland would open.
There is concern among health officials about the potential impact of such a disparity, which could result in people travelling across the border to pubs and restaurants.
Northern Ireland's chief medical officer said the Stormont Executive is facing "very difficult choices".
Today, a further eight Covid-19-linked deaths and 493 new cases of the virus were announced by the Department of Health.
The death toll recorded by the department now stands at 724.
There have been 39,609 confirmed cases in Northern Ireland, including 4,949 in the last seven days.
There are currently 379 patients with Covid-19 being treated in hospital, with 52 in intensive care.
Speaking to Cool FM News, CMO Dr Michael McBride said it will not be possible to keep the R rate, the estimated number of people an infected person passes the virus on to, below 1 if the hospitality sector and schools are both fully open.
"We will look at the evidence, we will advise on the basis of the evidence, and the Executive will have to make choices which balance up the needs of our health service, to manage the numbers of people with Covid, and also to continue to provide Covid care to ensure that we minimise the impact on lives and lives lost, but also to ensure that we minimise the impact on wider society and on the economy," he said.
"Let's be clear. We all realise how important the education of our children is. We all recognise the price that young people have paid to date in terms of their education, and potentially their future employment opportunities, and we need to invest in that.
"But it will not be possible to keep R below 1 with a return to schools and with hospitality open, it just is not going to be possible to that.
"So that is the sort of difficult choices and dilemmas the Executive will face. It will also have to consider whether there are alternative options that we can put in place, which stop somewhere short of schools being fully open or fully closed, or hospitality being fully open or fully closed.
"So are there additional measures which would help mitigate the risks? But the risks are there."
The leaders of the powersharing Executive at Stormont have signalled very different approaches to the scheduled ending of the restrictions on 13 November.
Northern Ireland's First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster has made it clear she is wedded to that timetable.
In a tweet, she stated that "current restrictions will end on 13 November as planned", adding that "We must adapt to coexist with the virus".
Had a useful call with @michaelgove & the other DAs.— Arlene Foster #We'llMeetAgain (@DUPleader) October 31, 2020
NI schools will reopen on Monday and our current restrictions will end on 13 November as planned.
We must adapt to coexist with the virus.
That means increasing hospital & testing capacity.
However, on the same night Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin's leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill struck a very different chord.
In a tweet, she said that "current restrictions will be reviewed by 13th November", and that the "focus must be following guidelines and minimising spread of this virus".
New restrictions announced by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson do not apply to the North— Michelle O'Neill (@moneillsf) October 31, 2020
Current restrictions remain in place & will be reviewed by 13th November
Our focus must be following guidelines & minimising spread of this virus
Together we can & we will overcome
On Friday, in a written statement to the Stormont Assembly, Northern Ireland's Health Minister Robin Swann warned of the potential danger of "premature relaxation of all restrictions".
A U-turn by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the furlough scheme, which sees the treasury paying 80% of employees wages, means extending restrictions beyond 13 November is now financially viable for the Stormont Executive.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme had been due to end on Sunday, but has now been extended until the end of November.