Pubs and restaurants in Northern Ireland will close for four weeks, with the exception of takeaways and deliveries, while schools will shut for two weeks over the half-term Halloween break in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus, First Minister Arlene Foster has confirmed.
Ms Foster announced the restrictions at a special sitting of the Assembly on Wednesday.
She said the rising Covid-19 figures were of “grave concern”.
“We fully appreciate that this will be difficult and worrying news for a lot of people,” she told MLAs.
“The Executive has taken this decision because it is necessary, and we discussed the impacts in great detail. We do not take this step lightly.” Mrs Foster said the Executive hoped the restrictions would have two impacts. “First, on the Covid transmission rates which must be turned down now, or we will be in a very difficult place very soon indeed,” she said.
“Second, we believe it marks a point where everyone, each and every one of us, can take stock and go back to the social distancing messaging. That is vitally important.”
Earlier, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar confirmed the Government was likely to consider increasing Covid-19 restrictions in the Border counties if the North entered a four-week lockdown.
Northern Ireland saw seven more deaths and 863 cases of the virus reported on Tuesday.
The Northern Executive met late on Tuesday night to discuss proposals that could see the hospitality industry shut down for four weeks and schools closed for two weeks, to include the one-week Halloween mid-term break. The Executive met briefly at about 9.30pm on Tuesday night but then adjourned until about 11pm after the SDLP Minister for Infrastructure Nichola Mallon complained that she and Alliance Minister for Justice Naomi Long were only shown the new lockdown proposals minutes before the meeting began.
The main proposals being considered, according to informed sources, were a four-week closure of pubs and restaurants and non-essential retail businesses, and a two-week shutdown of schools.
Ministers were deciding late on Tuesday night whether to convene a late-night session of the Assembly to present the new proposals or to call an Assembly meeting on Wednesday.
The latest figures bring the total number of coronavirus deaths in Northern Ireland since the start of the pandemic to 598 and the total number of positive cases to 21,898. In the past seven days, 6,286 people were tested positive for coronavirus – almost 900 per day.
There are now 150 people in Northern Ireland hospitals being treated for Covid-19, with 23 in intensive care units and 15 on ventilators. By far the highest incidence of the disease is in the Derry and Strabane council area, which over the past week saw 970 cases per 100,000 of the population.
This is more than double the incidence of the next highest area, Belfast, which is experiencing 462 cases per 100,000, followed by Mid-Ulster, with 401 cases per 100,000. The lowest number of cases is in the Mid and East Antrim council area – 95 cases per 100,000, and Ards and North Down – 135 cases per 100,000.
Against this rise in deaths and cases, the Northern Executive was due to meet on Tuesday afternoon to discuss imposing greater restrictions, but due to disagreement this was put back to late on Tuesday night. Instead, according to sources, Ministers at Stormont sought to achieve a compromise set of restrictions before calling a formal meeting of the Executive to ratify the new proposals.
Sources said that the North’s chief medical and science officers, Dr Michael McBride and Prof Ian Young, had recommended an imminent four- to six-week lockdown period, with a further similar lockdown in the new year. With the R number – the number of people to whom each infected person transmits the virus – between 1.3 and 1.8, Dr McBride and Prof Young urged action to bring the number below one.
They argued, according to Stormont sources, that to achieve this figure the hospitality sector should be severely restricted and/or schools closed for a period of up to six weeks. They said the R number could not be brought below one if both sectors remained fully open, the sources added.
Sources said Sinn Féin was pushing for a more stringent lockdown, while the DUP wanted schools to remain open, and also had concerns about how stricter regulations would affect the economy. In advance of the Executive meeting, First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster told the Northern Assembly that Ministers were “collectively very concerned about the rise in transmission across Northern Ireland”.
“Whilst we of course have to halt the rise of Covid-19, and that of course is something that we are all concerned about, it is important that we take a proportionate and balanced approach,” she said.
“Some people have said it is about health versus wealth – I think that is a completely false analysis. Our own chief medical officer back in May this year made the point that poverty kills and unemployment kills as well.
“Therefore, it is a balancing act between making sure that we deal with Covid-19 but that we also try and protect our economy, that we try and protect our society as we know it and indeed family life as we know it. So, these are huge decisions. None of it is easy.” – Additional reporting PA