Covid-19: Robin Swann appeals for people to stay safe this Easter

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The "stay at home" message remains in place over Easter

The health minister has appealed for people to stay safe over the Easter holiday.

While some regulations have been eased this week, the "stay at home" message remains.

Robin Swann said he understood the frustration of facing another holiday with Covid-19 restrictions in place.

The warning comes as BBC News NI learns that Belfast City Hospital is closing as Northern Ireland's Nightingale Hospital in the next couple of days.

The hospital was re-established last October and expanded in January to deal with the surging number of cases, but officials have said in recent weeks that the hospital would be wound down as case numbers have dropped.

With the beginning of the Easter holidays, Mr Swann said he wanted "people not to let their frustrations affect their judgement".

"These restrictions are in place to protect us from a vicious virus that has brought great tragedy to so many families.

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Robin Swann urged people to avoid crowded places

"When we are following them, we are helping keep ourselves and others safe - and helping our community get to a better place."

There are concerns that the good weather will encourage people to go out more than they have been able to.

The minister advised people to continue to avoid crowded places, especially where social distancing is difficult or not possible.

'Time of mixed emotions'

"Stay at home as much as possible and stay local when you are enjoying the great outdoors.

"Make fresh air your friend this Easter weekend - outdoors is much safer than indoors. Please please don't mix indoors with people from other households."

In a joint statement, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said people can "look forward with hope".

"I would ask people to take a moment this Easter Sunday to remember all those we have lost and those who are continuing to experience pain and hardship," said Arlene Foster.

"For those of faith this can be through a time of prayer, as discussed recently with church leaders."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said that Easter will be "a time of mixed emotions for many".

"Thankfully this year, with the success of our vaccination programme and the gradual easing of restrictions, we can all look to the future together with hope and optimism," she added.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd echoed Mr Swann's appeal for people to be mindful of Covid regulations.

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"We understand that people may be frustrated and are keen to return to normal but the fact remains that we are still in the midst of a pandemic and the choices we make have the potential to influence the road map out of the current lockdown," he said.

"The regulations also direct that no person may leave or remain away from home without reasonable excuse.

"Travel or stay at holiday accommodation does not constitute reasonable excuse and we are asking everyone to continue to postpone their visits to holiday accommodation until the regulations change."

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Pre-pandemic, many people enjoyed visits to beauty spots, such as Portrush, over Easter

From 1 April, people in Northern Ireland have been able to meet in groups of up to six from no more than two households in private gardens.

Up to 10 people from no more than two households can meet for some outdoor sporting activities in a public place or sports club.

With more than three-quarters of a million people having received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, the Department of Health has also published advice about how those who have been vaccinated should continue to follow public health advice.

It reiterates that the guidance on social distancing, hand-washing and face coverings still applies, and that the virus spreads easily in enclosed indoor spaces.