Northern Executive imposes more restrictions to curb ‘huge spike’ in Covid-19 cases

Eighteen deaths and 1,378 new cases of coronavirus reported in North on Tuesday

The Northern Executive met  on Tuesday afternoon to discuss imposing further restrictions. Photograph: PA

The Northern Executive met on Tuesday afternoon to discuss imposing further restrictions. Photograph: PA

 

The Northern Executive on Tuesday night decided to impose further restrictions to try to address what First Minister Arlene Foster has described as a “huge spike” in the number of coronavirus cases in Northern Ireland.

Ministers agreed that from Friday the “stay at home” advice will become legally enforceable. People must have a “reasonable excuse” to be away from their home.

On Tuesday afternoon in its daily bulletin the North’s health department reported 18 more Covid-19 deaths and 1,378 new positive cases of the virus. There were 12,487 confirmed cases in the past week.

The North’s death toll now stands at 1,384 while there have been 81,251 cases of the virus recorded since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Hospital bed occupancy is at 101 per cent. There are 577 patients in hospital receiving Covid-19 treatment with 45 in intensive care and 34 on ventilators.

Against these increased health pressures Northern Executive Ministers met again to assess how to tackle the escalation in the incidence of Covid-19 cases.

The North already is in a six-week lockdown that began on St Stephen’s Day. It applies to the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors while organised sport, apart from elite sport, is also also banned.

Police now will be able to enforce a “stay at home” Covid regulation. The exemptions will be for people who must travel to work or attend medical appointments and for shopping and exercise.

Most schooling will be done remotely with the majority of pupils learning from home until the mid-term break in mid-February, said the DUP education Minister Peter Weir.

Special schools will remain open and children of key workers and “vulnerable” children will be permitted to attend school for supervised learning.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the Executive had to take action because of the “huge pressures” on the health service.

“That is going to continue for the weeks ahead. I think we have a difficult time ahead but I think that these necessary interventions will add to the measures that are already in place,” she added.

It was also expected that the January series of primary school transfer tests scheduled to begin on Saturday would be cancelled or postponed by Mr Weir.

These are operated by the majority of second-level grammar schools in Northern Ireland to determine which pupils they will accept for enrolment. They replaced the old Eleven Plus transfer tests.

In 2002 the then Minister for Education, the late Martin McGuinness, announced he was abolishing academic selection.

While the last Eleven Plus tests were held in 2008 grammar schools initiated their own selection tests which are operated by two companies, the Association for Quality Education (AQE) and the Post Primary Transfer Consortium (PPTC).

Ahead of the Executive meeting on Tuesday afternoon both companies preempted the expected statement from Mr Weir by announcing that these tests now would not be held.

Later on Tuesday evening, AQE issued a fresh statement saying it would hold a single transfer test on February 27th, public health conditions permitting.

The Executive however took no official decision on transfer tests on Tuesday night but will discuss this and other Covid issues when it meets again on Thursday. It will also discuss whether A-level and GCSE exams will be held this year.

Ms O’Neill, who opposes academic selection, criticised AQE for deciding to hold tests in February.

Indoor and outdoor gatherings are also to be further restricted.

Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill and other Ministers will update the Northern Assembly’s Covid ad-hoc committee on Wednesday on the new measures.

Junior Ministers Gordon Lyons and Declan Kearney are to meet Northern Ireland church leaders to discuss the possible ending of Sunday services during this six-week lockdown.

Meanwhile, it was announced that the Executive is to receive £127 million from the British treasury for grants to support businesses forced to close due to the lockdown. The Sinn Féin finance Minister Conor Murphy said this was not additional to funding previously announced.