Covid-19: Northern Ireland to enter six-week lockdown from St Stephen’s Day

Hospitality, retail and leisure centre to be shut after midnight on Christmas Day

Ambulances at the entrance to the emergency department with a number of the vehicle with patients awaiting to be admitted, at Antrim Area Hospital. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Ambulances at the entrance to the emergency department with a number of the vehicle with patients awaiting to be admitted, at Antrim Area Hospital. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Northern Ireland is going back into lockdown for six weeks from just after midnight on Christmas night, the Northern Executive has decided.

On a day in which 12 more Covid-19 deaths were reported in Northern Ireland the new restrictions were prompted by the continuing rise in the incidence of coronavirus despite the recent additional two-weeks of lockdown that ended last Friday.

After signing off on the new restrictions with fellow Ministers on Thursday night the Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the situation was “quite dire”.

“It’s very clear from the positive cases we’re seeing every day that an urgent intervention was required,” she said.

“I think the health service would be completely crushed in January if we didn’t intervene now,” she added.

The North’s Covid-19 death toll now stands at 1,154. The health department also recorded 656 new cases of coronavirus on Thursday taking the total since the outbreak of the pandemic in March to 60,287.

Pressures on hospitals also remain high. On Thursday hospital bed occupancy was at 104 per cent.

There were 460 patients receiving Covid-19 treatment with 32 in intensive care and 26 of them on ventilators.

‘Robust’ proposals

It was in this context that Executive Ministers met through Thursday evening to consider a range of “robust” proposals from Ulster Unionist Party health Minister Robin Swann to curb the continued high incidence of the virus in the North.

After about four hours of discussions the Executive decided that Northern Ireland must go back into lockdown from St Stephen’s Day.

That period will be for six weeks although that will be reviewed after four weeks.

The restrictions once more will see the shutdown of much of the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors. It will mean that there will be no post-Christmas or New Year’s sales.

Close contact services such as hairdressers and beauticians will close, as will pubs, restaurants and cafes, although they will be permitted to offer takeaways.

Garden centres and hardware shops that previously were allowed open must shut down under these restrictions. Click-and-collect services from non-essential shops and stores, which were allowed in the last lockdown, also will be banned.

Off-licences must close by 8pm.

Ministers also decided to “harden up” the first week of the lockdown from December 26th to January 2nd which normally sees many sporting events such as horse racing and football fixtures. All these will be cancelled over that week.

Churches can remain open for prayer and Sunday services. Just 25 people will be allowed attend weddings and funerals.

Schools are to open after the Christmas holidays although there could be some review of this decision.

The special “Christmas bubbling” arrangements from December 23rd to the 27th, where up to three households can gather together, will remain in operation.

As a measure of the current pressures on the North’s health service on Thursday the ambulance service in the Republic offered to provide extra ambulances to assist the Northern Ireland service.

It is expected that they will operate in Belfast, Craigavon and Lisburn.

The chief executive of the North’s ambulance Service Michael Bloomfield said the move was “relatively unusual” and reflected the pressures his service was under.

It followed from the incident at Antrim Area Hospital on Tuesday when 17 ambulances were queued up outside the hospital with no room inside to treat the patients. Instead medical staff tended to them in the ambulances.