It is more likely than not that further Covid-19 restrictions will be recommended before Christmas, NI’s chief scientific adviser has warned.
Prof Ian Young said mid-December could be the “big risk period”.
Christmas “cannot be completely normal” as allowing people to interact will increase the risks, he added.
Some of the current restrictions are due to end on Friday with the reopening of close-contact services and unlicensed hospitality businesses.
Prof Young’s comments follow concerns expressed by Health Minister Robin Swann on Sunday.
“I agree with Minister Swann that it’s more likely than not that further restrictions will be asked for before Christmas,” Prof Young told Good Morning Ulster.
“There would be an option of measures which the executive would need to consider and I think everybody is familiar with what those restrictions look like.
“They have to minimise the interactions between people, particularly in indoor settings, in order to reduce transmission of the virus as much as possible.”
On Thursday Stormont ministers reached a compromise, amid deep divisions, to extend the current restrictions.
Hairdressers and coffee shops are among the businesses allowed to reopen from Friday.
The deal, proposed by Economy Minister Diane Dodds, was backed “reluctantly” by the health minister.
Mr Swann said he wanted the current regulations to continue for a further two weeks.
He told The Nolan Show the pressure which hospitals could be under this winter would “be one of the worst episodes our health service in Northern Ireland will face”.
The minister appealed for people to limit their contacts and exercise good hand and respiratory hygiene to limit the spread of the virus.
On the row at Stormont last week, Prof Young said he was “very glad” he was not a politician.
These are tough decisions for ministers, he added, and he was confident the executive would “seriously consider” any advice health officials put forward.
When asked about schools closing early for Christmas, Prof Young said keeping schools open was a top priority for the executive,
However, he said “opening schools will tend to increase the transmission of the virus in the community”.
“Less because of what happens in schools and more because of what happens outside schools as people interact in different ways,” he said.
When schools were closed, he said the R number – the number of people that one infected person will pass on a virus to – was well below one but with schools open, it was likely that R would be around 1 or slightly higher.
“The executive have placed a great deal of value on the importance on keeping schools open and maintaining education for the sake of the mental health and futures of all of our young people,” he said.
“I’m sure we’d all agree that’s a very important outcome.”