Up to 80 military medics will arrive in Northern Ireland in the next week to help relieve Covid pressures on hospital wards, the health minister has told MLAs.

Robin Swann also refused to rule out the possibility that some Covid regulations that have been eased may need to be reintroduced if the pandemic worsens.

The minister appeared before his Stormont scrutiny committee today, where he faced questions about pressures on hospitals.

Earlier this month, Mr Swann asked the Ministry of Defence to send armed service medics to be deployed under an arrangement known as Military Aid to Civilian Authorities (MACA).

Military personnel have been used in earlier stages of Northern Ireland's response to the health emergency.

When asked for an update during his committee hearing, Mr Swann said: "We expect to see up to 80 military medical technicians deploy here in Northern Ireland within the next week or so.

"They will be here for a four to five-week deployment, that is what we have been able to get them for and they will go into a number of our hospitals to help out.

"This wasn't a political decision, this was a number one priority for me to save lives and to support and protect our staff on the front line.

"Staff are tired and what they said to me after we used the military deployment in the first wave, they saw that not just as physical help but a boost to morale because they saw someone else coming in to take that pressure off them and help what they do."

Committee vice-chair Pam Cameron asked the minister about recent decisions to remove social distancing in certain environments.

She said: "Can you allay fears that such relaxations won't be reversed coming into the winter months because of the ongoing pressures in our hospitals?"

Mr Swann responded: "Can I assure that we won't have to reverse some of those decisions or bring back those restrictions? No, because I think it would be foolish for anyone to give those levels of commitment when we don't know what is in front of us over the next four months.

"In regards to where we currently are or even new variants as well, like other health ministers across these islands, to take anything off the table would be foolish and it wouldn't be being honest with the people of Northern Ireland to say that we are only going in one direction.

"In regard to the relaxation of social distancing in a small number of settings, the decision that was taken by the Executive on Monday, I believe it was proportionate to where we are now.

"There are mandated measures in place. The wearing of face coverings in Northern Ireland has not been removed and it frustrates me greatly and it angers me when I see the number of people not wearing face coverings."

Alliance Party MLA Paula Bradshaw asked the minister about the possibility of a circuit-breaker lockdown this winter.

Mr Swann said: "Our trusts are currently putting their winter surge plans in place, they are also putting Covid surge plans in place and what I have asked them to do is to put those all together as a service-wide winter and surge plan so that there is no difference, that we are looking at this as a single-system approach as we approach what could be a challenging three to four months.

"In regards to circuit-breakers, I hope we don't have to. I know the Executive is looking (at this) at its meeting next Thursday. I think Westminster talked about a plan A and a plan B, so I think the Executive is doing that piece of scoping work as well to ensure that if we have to take an intervention we are prepared to do it. I hope we don't have to."