NI must “tread carefully” when it comes to easing the coronavirus lockdown and some restrictions may remain in place long term, Robin Swann has said.
The health minister said that despite progress with vaccinations, serious uncertainties remain about the future.
His comments came amid warnings from health officials that some restrictions could remain in place until next year.
“If we want a better spring and summer, we need to make the utmost effort now,” added Mr Swann.
Northern Ireland re-entered lockdown on 26 December, as hospitals faced severe pressures in managing a third wave of the virus.
The executive will review the restrictions next week but the measures are currently in place until 5 March.
Four more coronavirus-related deaths have been reported in Northern Ireland, according to the Department of Health.
A total number of 1,957 people have now died in NI after testing positive for the virus.
A further 336 positive coronavirus cases were also recorded on Wednesday in the department’s latest figures.
There are 554 people being treated in hospital for the virus in Northern Ireland, 61 are in intensive care units (ICU).
Speaking at the weekly health press conference at Stormont on Wednesday, the minister said he wanted to offer people hope but had to “stress the need for caution”.
Wearing face coverings in shops and on public transport may remain the “new normal” even if lockdown measures are eased, added Mr Swann.
“If we continue with the progress we are making, we can consider a careful, managed, easing of some measures – but only when and if the timing is right,” he warned.
The minister set out three “principles” he said would guide the executive’s response to easing restrictions in the coming months.
Mr Swann said he wanted to “aggressively stamp down” infection rates, in order to allow breathing space for all aspects of society to recover.
On new variants of the virus, he said they represented a considerable unknown and that ministers could not prematurely end lockdown and risk “falling into another in a small number of weeks”.
It is believed at least 50% of current Covid-19 cases in NI could be related to the variant that was detected in Kent before Christmas.
It is thought to be about 50-70% more infectious than the original Covid-19 strain that emerged early last year.
He pointed to upcoming St Patrick’s Day and Easter holidays and said history could not repeat itself by allowing increased social mixing to cause a large spike in cases.
Mr Swann said he longed for the day when all families in Northern Ireland could enjoy freedoms they previously took for granted, but stressed “we are not there yet”.
As of Tuesday, 361,430 doses of the vaccine had been administered in Northern Ireland.
The minister said the vaccination programme was making “real progress” and more than 90% of people aged over 80 in NI have now received a dose, along with 80% of those aged 75 to 79.
Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said no-one was advocating for a full lockdown to continue until 2022.
“We can do better than that, and we must do better than that,” he told the press conference.
But he warned that if restrictions were relaxed too early, cases would grow and that would lead to further pressures on the health service and another rise in deaths.
“We need to allow time between relaxing one thing, assessing the impact of that before then relaxing another,” said Dr McBride.
He added that “small, careful baby steps” were required, but insisted “there will be a time after Covid”.
Both Dr McBride and Mr Swann appealed to the public to continue following the current public health advice, insisting it would remain an important part of the strategy to manage Covid-19.