First Minister Arlene Foster has said the reproduction number in Northern Ireland is between 0.65 and 0.75 as she welcomed the fall in the number of people testing positive for Covid-19.

She also said that plans to scale up high priority surgery and rebuild elective care services at Belfast City Hospital were positive.

With some of the youngest children set to return to primary schools next week, Mrs Foster said the impact will be assessed by the Stormont Executive at the next review of current restrictions on 16 March.

Meanwhile, a total of 596,860 vaccine doses have been administered in Northern Ireland, of which 40,139 were second doses.

Earlier, Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann said that while "good progress" is still being made in the pandemic, the number of people in Northern Ireland's hospital with Covid-19 "remains high", and there is "slight growth" in case numbers again.

Mr Swann told Stormont's Health Committee that if "increasing social contact goes again too quickly, we may find ourselves back in the cycle that we've seen, but we know the rollout of the vaccination programme continues to make good progress and is expected to have a substantial impact on the epidemic in the medium to longer term."

He said the planned inoculation of those aged 50 and over in April will be a "monumental step in a population-wide vaccination programme".

Mr Swann also highlighted the "ongoing risk of increased transmissibility from new variants of the virus that have been identified elsewhere".

He said cases of the South African variant have been confirmed in Northern Ireland over the last week, but no cases of the Brazilian variant have been reported so far.

"The full impact of the new variants will only be seen when measures are relaxed and the R (reproduction) number may rise more than would previously have been the case," he said.

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Mr Swann told the committee that the Nightingale temporary facility at Belfast City Hospital has been "prioritised for de-escalation" to facilitate the rebuilding of services.

"Belfast City Hospital normally hosts our complex high priority surgery on behalf of the region so I'm keen that we scale up this high priority surgery as quickly as possible," he told MLAs.

Critical care for Covid-19 patients will be delivered at the Mater Hospital.

"Elective care rebuild must reflect a regional prioritisation to ensure that those in most clinical need regardless of place of residence are prioritised," he said.