Pressure mounts to extend Northern Ireland lockdown

North’s health department reports 12 more deaths and 516 new cases of Covid-19

Pressure is mounting for an extension of the current four-week Covid-19 lockdown in Northern Ireland beyond its scheduled end on Friday week, November 13th.

With the Department of Health on Thursday afternoon reporting 12 more deaths and 516 new confirmed coronavirus cases the Northern Executive was facing calls to prolong the lockdown, which is severely affecting the hospitality sector.

Dr Tom Black, chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) in the North, earlier this week warned that ending the lockdown on Friday week would be an "act of careless vandalism" while on Thursday the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Ministers should agree to continuing the restrictions for an extra two weeks.

Department of Health officials prepared a paper for the Northern Executive advising that extending the lockdown by a further two weeks could mean avoiding the imposition of renewed restrictions around the Christmas period.

The Executive met on Thursday and while Ministers discussed the paper they did not take a decision on the matter. First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill however said that Ministers would discuss the issues further over the weekend and that a decision on whether to extend the lockdown was likely to be announced early next week.

“These discussions will continue and we will intensify our engagement with the hospitality sector representatives as we seek a safe and sustainable way forward,” said Ms Foster.

Ms O’Neill said it was not the case that Ministers could not agree on the matter at its Executive meeting but rather that Ministers had further work to do to try to arrive at an “agreed position”.

The latest figures show that the incidence of Covid-19 remains at a high level although it has been reducing since the introduction of the lockdown on October 16th.

With 12 deaths recorded on Thursday, the Covid-19 death toll in the North has risen to 752. With 516 new cases the number of people who have had the virus over the pandemic has risen to 41,374.

When the restrictions were introduced three weeks ago Northern Ireland reported a record 1,299 cases in one day.

Currently, there are 409 patients receiving treatment for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland hospitals with 49 in intensive care units and 42 on ventilators. Hospital bed occupancy is at 100 per cent.

The overall seven-day incidence figure for Northern Ireland is 334 cases per 100,000 of population.

Mid Ulster continues to register the highest level of cases with 334 per 100,000 followed by Derry and Strabane with 302 cases and Belfast with 240.

Ahead of the Executive meeting, SDLP leader Mr Eastwood said it was “clearly the view of the Executive’s most senior medical advisers that coronavirus restrictions should be extended for an additional two weeks to reduce the R number and prevent further transmission of the virus”.

Ms Foster said there had been “significant progress on transmission rates” since the start of the latest restrictions and that the R rate of infection in the community had fallen to 0.7.

The First Minister said it was estimated that the four weeks of restrictions would cost the Northern Ireland economy £400 million.

Ms O’Neill said that as regards Christmas it would be useful if there could be alignment across the two islands on what regulations and restrictions might apply during the holiday period.

The North's Minister of Health Robin Swann said the coming period was highly uncertain. "I'm deeply concerned about the increase in Covid cases over the last month and we believe further waves are still a continuing threat," he said at the Assembly health committee.

The North chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride told the committee that health officials were trying to “balance both lives and livelihoods” although he realised it was a particularly “difficult time” for the hospitality sector.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times