Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister has urged a cautious approach to further lockdown relaxations amid high Covid rates and pressures on the health service.

Michelle O’Neill also criticised the DUP’s approach to remaining restrictions.

DUP First Minister Paul Givan has previously expressed a desire to see the measures lifted by the end of September and the party has voiced opposition to any further lockdowns.

Health Minister Robin Swann also took a different position to the DUP, warning against being calendar-led with future moves to lift coronavirus restrictions.

Ms O’Neill, who returned to Stormont on Monday following her own battle with Covid-19, said Thursday’s meeting of the Executive was an “important” one and would look at pandemic planning for the winter.

The Sinn Fein vice president said she would advocate a cautious approach to easing further restrictions.

“Clearly we are experiencing very high levels of Covid, a very difficult time for the health service. Healthcare staff are stretched to full capacity and really exhausted after the last 18 months, and they continue to really feel that pressure,” she said.

“I think the Executive on Thursday will have to look at where we are now, have to look about planning for the winter and what’s going to be a very uncertain period, I think, over the winter months.

“We have to take decisions, I believe we need to be cautious, we need to make progress, of course, but we need to move very cautiously as we go through the next number of months if we’re going to protect not only ourselves, our loved ones.

“It’s not just in terms of the Covid crisis and the pressure in our hospitals, it’s the knock-on impact that it has across our health service for those patients requiring treatment for many other conditions.

“That is all a very challenging picture.”

Ms O’Neill said she had “always advocated the cautious approach”.

“That we take things very steady, when we’re able to make easements, we have to measure those easements,” she said.

“It’s very clear the winter months ahead are going to be difficult. It’s already a difficult picture within the health service.”

She added: “What we need to have is a preventative approach, I have always said that we need to be very honest with the public and say that everything has to remain on the table given the uncertain nature of the pandemic.

“However I want to do everything we can to avoid circuit-breakers, lockdowns whatever you want to call them. So we should do everything in our power. We can do that with simple things, face coverings, social distancing … those things will prevent us from having to reach for the more draconian tools.”

Speaking separately, Mr Swann said Northern Ireland is not yet at a point where restrictions related to face coverings and social distancing should be lifted.

The Ulster Unionist minister said he would take a “proportionate” approach to lifting any remaining coronavirus measures and would be influenced by transmission rates of the virus and the pressures on hospitals.

“I haven’t seen any proposals or asks coming forward from other ministers.

“To move away from the compulsory wearing of face coverings in certain areas and social distancing, I don’t think we’re at a point yet when you see the infection rates currently in Northern Ireland,” he said.

He said it would be “irresponsible” to rule out further circuit break lockdowns.

“It would be irresponsible for any health minister to take anything off the table,” he said.

“And I think it wouldn’t be honest to the people of Northern Ireland.

“It (being honest) is something I’ve strived to do over the last 18 months, it may not be messages that people wanted to hear or people liked hearing, but, when it comes to this virus, we can’t take anything off the table, because to take something off the table now that we do have to bring back if things start to go the wrong way would be irresponsible and it’s not something I’m prepared to do.

“One of the challenges that we’ve always tried to overcome in the last 18 months is that perception of mixed messages,” he said.

“I think coming from a health (department) point of view, we’ve been consistent, it’s about taking the steps that are at the right time as to where the virus actually is in Northern Ireland and not actually trying to manage things by calendar date, because that doesn’t work.

“Coronavirus never has and never will follow that calendar that people may want to set for it.”

On Monday, a further five deaths of patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 and 1,020 more cases of the virus were reported in Northern Ireland.

There were 379 Covid-19 patients in hospital, with 33 in intensive care.