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Today we have had a sobering assessment of the current phase of the pandemic by our Health Minister, Robin Swann, based on the latest medical and scientific evidence.

We all know what we are battling against, and we know the virus has been moving more swiftly across our community during this Winter wave.

Our hard work, together and individually, over the last four weeks has pushed the R rate for cases down to well below 1, now between 0.65 and 0.85.

By our collective efforts we have halved the rate of cases in a fortnight. And day by day we are reducing that further.

And we have done so right across Northern Ireland.

That shows that our efforts are having a real effect.

By close of play yesterday 166,538 vaccines had been delivered, including 144,212 first doses.

For the Phase 1 high-priority cohort to be concluded by the end of this month, 83% have been vaccinated.

It is anticipated that all over-80 year olds will have been offered a vaccine by the end of this week, and we will be commencing the over-75s group.

Each week the Executive considers data on mobility and we can see that there has been a significant reduction in the number of people travelling.

This reflects a personal decision by so many of you, to do as we asked and stay at home. For that we thank you. You are saving lives.

Again, I want to commend all those who are helping make this possible. To the employers and managers who are supporting staff to work at home, to all of the

supermarkets, food stores and pharmacies who are running efficient delivery services and of course to our teachers and lecturers who are supporting the education of our young people off campus.

We have made progress, but our war against COVID is not yet won. Our hospital case numbers remain at extremely high levels.

Thus, we are asking for that support to keep going.

To not press forward would risk all the hard won gains.

We need to keep pressing forward to provide our National Health Service the full relief and the respite it needs from COVID.

This week the NHS is facing the peak of COVID demand and the system is truly struggling to cope, as recognised by the request for Military assistance.

· Pressures on ICU beds.

· Pressures on general hospital beds.

· The human burden on our NHS staff.

We know from back in the Autumn that these numbers will only decrease very gradually, and that this will be the situation for the coming weeks.

We are asking our NHS to keep on going. And as a broader community, so must we.

The Executive today has reviewed the current restrictions and agreed that they remain an appropriate and necessary response to the serious and imminent threat posed by Covid-19.

Following a detailed outline from Health highlighting the continuing pressures on our hospitals and ICU Departments, and the emergence of the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 and other variants, the Executive agreed that the current restrictions will be extended for a further four weeks until 5th March 2021.

The restrictions will be reviewed on or before 18th February.

I appreciate that this will be disappointing to many of you. I think particularly of those:

- who are feeling the pain of separation from loved family members and friends;

- workers and employers who are worried about their livelihoods;

- and parents who are juggling the education of their children with work and other responsibilities.

Separate arrangements have been in place for our schools, outside the Regulations, and the Executive will have a comprehensive discussion next week around schools returning and broader education issues.

This is undoubtedly the most difficult of times and we know the sacrifice that you are making to save lives.

And as an Executive, we are committed to taking every possible step to move us forward out of this pandemic

as quickly as possible and tackle the economic, social and health legacy it will leave us with.

We have invested in:

- the development of a robust and effective vaccination programme

- and in a highly efficient contact tracing system which has a 24 hour turnaround in 93% of cases.

Both of these services are the envy of other jurisdictions.

Our UK four nation partnership, has delivered:

- medical support for our hospitals from our Armed Forces;

- a national vaccination programme that is world-leading;

- unprecedented funding, which has proved invaulable across all facets of our society;

- and the establishment of genomic testing which will be crucial to the fightback against new variants. At present, it is estimated that the UK is undertaking 40% of all global sequencing.

And the Executive is pushing ahead with our work on a pathway to recovery. The Covid-19 Taskforce will bring recommendations on the approach to a relaxation of restrictions to coincide with the next review in February.

What we are asking of you is to keep going.

Please follow to the public health advice.

Stay at home as much as possible.

And remember that if we all work together, and we do it, we will get through it.