Coronavirus: Northern Ireland reports 1,662 new cases and six further deaths
Almost 12,000 cases of Covid-19 have been identified in the North in the past seven days
On Saturday, the department said there had been 3,576 positive tests in the previous 48 hour period, as well as an additional 25 deaths. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
The department also recorded an additional six deaths, bringing the total number of fatalities to 1,354.
There have been 11,810 cases of the virus identified in the North in the past seven days.
The rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in Northern Ireland will begin at GP practices on Monday. An initial batch of 50,000 doses has been allocated, with those aged over 80 given priority.
On Saturday, the department said there had been 3,576 positive tests in the previous 48 hour period, as well as an additional 25 deaths. It also reported an additional fatality which had occurred previously.
The department usually provides such data on a daily basis, but its Covid-19 dashboard was not updated on Friday because it was New Year’s Day. Instead, the figures released on Saturday covered a 48-hour period, rather than the usual 24 hours.
The chair of the Stormont Health Committee, the Sinn Féin MLA Colm Gildernew, has requested an “urgent” meeting of the committee this week amid what he described as “growing concern at the dramatic rise in the number of people testing positive with Covid-19.”
Mr Gildernew said that among the issues the committee needed to consider were the impact of the new, more virulent strain of Covid-19, pressure on hospitals and the health service, and the potential impact of the return of schools and exams, as well as “sharply rising case numbers across the island of Ireland.”
Meanwhile, pupils who had been due to return to school on Monday are to be taught remotely for the first week of term to limit the spread of coronavirus in the North.
The Minister for Education, the DUP MLA Peter Weir, had previously insisted schools would return as normal in January but changed his advice on December 31st because of what he described in a letter to schools, which has been seen by The Irish Times, as the “deteriorating nature of the epidemic and the risks to public health”.
Primary school pupils and post-primary pupils in years 12-14 (which includes GCSE and A-level classes) will return to face-to-face teaching from January 11th, with the remainder of post-primary pupils taught remotely until the end of January.
Post-primary pupils will also be required to wear face coverings in all school settings, including classrooms, for the first time.
On Sunday the North’s First Minister, the DUP leader Arlene Foster, said remote learning should only be for a short period.
“I certainly don’t want to be in a position of keeping our young people at home,” Ms Foster told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “It is important that we get young people into schools again but we have to have remote learning for a short period of time, and I hope it is a short period of time.
“We will do all that we can to keep our young people in schools, however we do recognise that with this new mutant version of Covid-19 that there are difficulties, that it transmits amongst younger people, and therefore we have to take that into consideration,” Ms Foster said.
There have been calls for Northern Ireland’s schools to remain closed for longer to halt the spread of the virus, and for the transfer test examinations - which are sat in January by some pupils in the last year of primary school to gain entry to some grammar schools - to be cancelled.
AQE, one of the private companies which runs the transfer test exams, has confirmed that the exams will go ahead on January 9th, 16th and 23rd.
The chair of the Stormont Education Committee, the Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, said the Minister had been required to partially close schools until January 11th yet the first test was scheduled to take place in post-primary schools on January 9th.
“There is legitimate concern as to how, in this exceptional situation, it is safe or legal to sit this test,” Mr Lyttle said, and called for “urgent clarity”.