Northern Ireland heads into four-week lockdown as record 1,217 coronavirus cases reported

North’s pubs and restaurants will close for four weeks, while Varadkar confirms Border counties may face more restrictions

There have been 1,217 new Covid-19 cases in Northern Ireland in the last 24-hour reporting period, the Department of Health there has announced.

It is the largest daily rise in cases in the North since an extended testing regime was introduced.

There were also a further four deaths reported on Wednesday, taking the toll recorded by the Department of Health to 602.

Hospital Report

Earlier on Wednesday the North's First Minister Arlene Foster said Northern Ireland is going into lockdown for four weeks, confirmed in the Stormont Assembly.

With the incidence of Covid-19 continuing to spiral upwards and with pressure on hospital beds, Ms Foster told Assembly members that the hospitality sector will shutdown for four weeks from Friday while schools will close for two weeks beginning Monday.

Takeaways and deliveries will be allowed but pubs and restaurants must close for a four-week period, said Ms Foster.

Off-licences and supermarkets will not be allowed to sell alcohol after 8pm.

Churches can remain open but attendance at weddings and civil partnerships will be limited to 25 people, and receptions will not be allowed. This will apply from Monday.

Funerals will be limited to 25 people with no gatherings before or after a service.

People will be advised not to undertake any “unnecessary travel”. No indoor sport of any kind or organised contact sports will be permitted other than at elite level.

Gyms may remain open for individual training only, while universities will be advised to provide “distance learning to the maximum extent possible”.

Ms Foster said the restrictions were designed to have two impacts. “Firstly, 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.

“And secondly, 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 the lockdownproposals. The Executive met briefly at about 9.30pm but then adjourned until about 11pm after the SDLP Minister for Infrastructure Nichola Mallon complained that she and Alliance leader and Minister for Justice Naomi Long were only shown the new lockdown proposals minutes before the meeting began.

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.

Intensive care

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.

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.

‘Severely restricted’

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. - Additional reporting PA