A grim coronavirus milestone has been reached in Northern Ireland with the number of official deaths passing 1,000.

A further 15 coronavirus deaths have been recorded, taking the Department of Health toll to 1,011.

Seven of the deaths occurred during the past 24 hours, while eight were outside that period.

There are also 391 new cases from tests on 1,992 individuals.

Health Minister Robin Swann said Northern Ireland had reached a "sad milestone".

"We always have to remember that we are not talking about statistics but much-loved people who are desperately missed," he said.

"My profound sympathies go to every bereaved family.

"This is another harsh reminder of the threat posed by Covid-19. No one should underestimate the virus, or delude themselves that it could never affect them."

Mr Swann had a strong message for those who did not consider coronavirus to be a risk.

"I am very aware that there is still a small and vociferous minority who seek to play down the coronavirus risks.

"This includes those who spout conspiracy theories on social media and those who think Northern Ireland could somehow have breezed through all this without adopting restrictions that were widely deployed elsewhere.

"To anyone trying to minimise the impact, I say please think again."

He added: "We need to ensure we get maximum benefit from the current restrictions in terms of pushing down infection rates. The same vigilance will be essential throughout Christmas and well beyond it.

"January and February are extremely difficult months for our health service, even in normal times.

"We need to keep doing everything we can to stop the virus spreading today and tomorrow, this week and next. Our actions will have a direct bearing on how the disease spreads, how it will impact on our lives and whether there will be a need for further restrictions in early 2021."

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The first Covid-19 linked fatality in Northern Ireland was confirmed on 19 March when a man with an underlying medical condition died in a Belfast hospital.

The following day Mr Swann warned of a surge in cases of "biblical proportions", and said that in a worst case scenario the Northern Ireland death toll could be up to 15,000.

Less than two weeks later, on 1 April, he revised that estimate, saying that 3,000 people could die in a "reasonable worst-case scenario".

The Department of Health figures include anyone who dies within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test.

Another set of figures compiled by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) last week put the number of deaths at 1,301.

NISRA includes all deaths where Covid-19 is mentioned on the death certificate, whether or not there has been a positive test result.

The 391 new cases reported today takes the cumulative number of positive tests to 52,856.

There are 419 confirmed coronavirus patients in hospital, with 38 in intensive care units, 29 of whom are on ventilators.

The first case of Covid-19 on the island of Ireland was announced in Belfast on 28 February, when the media was called to a hastily arranged press conference to be told that the adult patient had recently returned from northern Italy, which at the time was the world's coronavirus hotspot.

Northern Ireland's Chief Medical Officer Dr Micheal McBride revealed that the patient had travelled home through Dublin airport.

Health authorities on both sides of the border worked together to identify any close contacts the patient may have encountered during the journey. 

'Good to go' for vaccine rollout 

Northern Ireland is ready to start Covid-19 vaccinations in mid-December if approvals are given and stocks arrive, the head of the rollout programme has said. 

Patricia Donnelly said the region's health trusts were "good to go" and had identified seven sites to administer the vaccine to healthcare workers. 

Ms Donnelly said the first phase would also see vaccines administered in care homes and to people aged over 80. 

She said meeting the 14 December target date would depend on vaccines gaining the expected approvals and stock being delivered on schedule. 

Ms Donnelly was addressing a media briefing that also heard from Stormont's chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young, who said last week's relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions had halted the fall in infection numbers. 

Meanwhile, chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said the region was experiencing "extremely low levels" of flu and other viral infections this year - something he attributed to increased hygiene measures. 

Northern Ireland's vaccine programme is being steered by advice from the UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). 

The first vaccine due to be rolled out in Northern Ireland is the Pfizer product, followed by the one developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca. 

Ms Donnelly said people would not get a choice of which vaccine they were given. 

She said the programme anticipated a 75% vaccination rate. She made clear vaccinations would be voluntary and there were no plans for a mandatory rollout if uptake was low. 

Prof Young said there would need to be at least 50% uptake for population immunity to be achieved. 

Additional reporting PA