Stormont ministers have agreed that nightclubs in Northern Ireland will close from December 26th.
The North recorded its highest daily number of new Covid-19 infections on Wednesday, with an additional 3,231 cases of the virus confirmed by the department of health.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said nightclubs will be closed from 6am on December 26th.
The move to close nightclubs was agreed at a virtual meeting of the Executive on Wednesday as ministers discussed how to respond to the Omicron variant.
Ministers also agreed that sporting events can continue with no limits on capacity, while the work from home message will be bolstered and legislation introduced to require social distancing in offices and similar typed workplaces.
Employers will be encouraged to introduce lateral flow testing procedures for people who are still coming into work.
People attending large events will be urged to wear face masks, take lateral flow tests and not car share to or from the venues.
While nightclubs must close, other restrictions are coming into effect on the rest of the hospitality sector. People must remain seated for table service while table numbers will be limited to six.
Dancing will also be prohibited from December 26th.
Weddings are exempted from the latest measures.
First Minister Paul Givan described measures as “proportionate based on where we are today” but added they will be kept under review.
Ms O’Neill said ministers “spent considerable time agreeing a proportionate package of measures based on the best evidence that we have available to us at this time”. She said they will continue to analyse the data over the Christmas period.
“In the meantime, we are getting on with planning for all eventualities,” she said. “Central to our ability to respond to the pandemic has been around the availability of money to support individuals and businesses through this very difficult time.
“We will continue to press the Treasury for financial support because that gives us more flexibility in terms of managing the situation as we see fit here, not depending on what happens in England.”
Health Minister Robin Swann said Omicron is now the dominant variant in Northern Ireland. He said the precautionary approach would have been to impose more restrictions, but said options were “extremely limited” due to the absence of furlough and additional supports.
“I have made clear to ministerial colleagues that we may have to move quickly again in the event of the Covid situation deteriorating again further and additional funding becoming available,” he said. “That may have to happen in the very near future but I will say again, it is not inevitable.
“So I would encourage everyone still to come forward and get their vaccinations and follow public health guidance.”
The Executive will meet again on December 30th.
Jump in infection
The jump in infection numbers is the highest increase reported in Northern Ireland for a 24-hour period since Covid reporting began in April 2020.
The figures come amid stark warnings of soaring infection rates when the Omicron variant takes hold in the region.
The department of health also reported the deaths of a further three more people with Covid-19.
On Wednesday morning 261 people were receiving hospital treatment for Covid-19, with 34 in intensive care.
Ministers in the North have been meeting on Wednesday to discuss further measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 after Christmas.
The head of the North's vaccination programme, Patricia Donnelly, appealed on Wednesday to people to "get your booster before Christmas" and urged people to help friends, family and neighbours to get jabbed by offering practical help such as lifts to vaccination clinics or assistance with booking appointments.
“This could be the best Christmas present you give,” she said.
“Health Trusts, GPs and pharmacies are pulling out all the stops to get more people jabbed. With the Omicron surge coming, boosters provide vital protection,” she said.
Meanwhile, pregnant women of all ages, including those aged under 18, are being urged to come forward for vaccination if they have not already done so.
This follows the latest review of evidence by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, who now advise that pregnant women of any age should be considered as a clinical risk group and should be prioritised for vaccination. – PA