Localised restrictions introduced to halt the spread of coronavirus are to be extended to all parts of Northern Ireland amid concerns the virus is multiplying rapidly in the North.
From 6pm on Tuesday people from different households will not be allowed to meet inside private homes. A maximum of six people (excluding children under 12) from no more than two households can meet in private gardens.
There are a number of exemptions, which include caring responsibilities or childcare needs, essential maintenance, supported living arrangements or legal or medical visits.
Single person households are also permitted to “bubble” with one other household.
Two more people with coronavirus died in Northern Ireland over the weekend, according to figures released on Monday by the North’s Department of Health (DoH), bringing the number of coronavirus-related fatalities recorded by the department to 577.
Both victims were aged between 60-79. One of the deaths took place in the Newry, Mourne and Down council area, and the other was in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon.
A further 125 people tested positive for coronavirus in the 24 hours until Monday, according to the DoH. The total number of cases now stands at 9,466, which includes 1,014 identified in the last seven days.
The new measures were announced by the first and deputy first ministers following a meeting of the North’s Executive on Monday afternoon.
Speaking at a press conference at Stormont following the meeting, the first minister, Arlene Foster, said it was “clear that it is in the environments where we feel safe and relax where we drop our guard, and the mixing of households indoors presents one of the best opportunities for the spread of the virus.
“We continue to be advised that it is gatherings and domestic properties where most of the virus transmission is occurring,” she said, adding that other environments away from home could be “better controlled and regulated.”
However she stressed the North was “not returning to lockdown” and these were “limited measures, which I hope by acting upon at this early stage mean we can prevent the need for more draconian measures.”
Lost the run of themselves
The first minister also criticised those who have “lost the run of themselves a little bit, whether they ran onto the pitch at a GAA match, partied in bars afterwards, swarmed the streets of Belfast’s Holyland, or indeed crowded into house parties.”
Ms Foster said she was putting those participating in such behaviour “on notice that we intend to take this matter very seriously” and the regulations would be enforced.
Concerns were raised over breaches of social distancing guidelines following a pitch invasion at Healy Park in Omagh on Sunday after GAA club Dungannon Clarkes won the Tyrone county final on Sunday.
Ulster GAA acknowledged the on-pitch celebration “not only breached GAA protocols but, and much more significantly, public health guidelines” and said it was “strongly reiterating” the message that spectators should not be on the pitch after games.
“The GAA has acted in a positive manner since the outbreak of the pandemic, with attendances at games strictly regulated,” the sporting body said.
While supporters had responded “positively and responsibly” to the pandemic, the scenes at Healy Park “undoubtedly placed GAA members and their local community at greater risk to Covid 19” and “potentially undermines” the case for allowing greater attendances at GAA matches and in other sports.
Meanwhile the police have begun an investigation into whether the pitch invasion breached the coronavirus regulations.
Chief Superintendent Ryan Henderson said the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was "aware of an incident at a GAA match in Omagh yesterday and will be reviewing all available evidence to determine any potential breach of the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations NI 2020 or breach of any other statute identified in respect of any individual."
The police in South Belfast said they issued 55 notices for breaches of the Covid regulations and eight prohibition notices in the student Holyland area from Sunday to early on Monday morning.
Chief Inspector Gavin Kirkpatrick said the police’s “robust” operation against breaches of the regulations due to house parties or other gatherings in the area would continue.
The North’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Ian Young, warned that the virus “is everywhere, and will spread everywhere” and for this reason more generalised restrictions were required.
However he said there was some evidence that the limits on household gatherings, which were introduced in greater Belfast, Ballymena and some other postcode areas ten days ago were beginning to have an effect on transmission rates in Ballymena.
The deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, acknowledged “people are fed up with Covid” and “generally people are just tired” but warned that it remained “a real threat.”
“We’re at a juncture now where we have an opportunity to be able to stop something that could be an even more challenging situation coming towards us in the winter,” she said, “so this period of the next two to three weeks is crucially important in us trying to take control of the virus spread.”