Northern Ireland will enter a hard lockdown on Boxing Day for six weeks as the pandemic situation here was described as “quite dire”.
The Executive entered intense talks last night after Health Minister Robin Swann tabled a number of strict restriction proposals to tackle the surge in Covid-19 cases.
Numbers have continued to rise despite the recent two-week circuit-breaker.
Mid and East Antrim has the highest rate with 313.8 per 100,000 people — up from 240.5.
Mr Swann said the restrictions will come into effect from midnight on Christmas Day until early February.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the controls will reviewed after four weeks at the end of January. Describing the situation was “quite dire”, she said the number of positive cases each day made it clear that urgent intervention was required.
During the first week of lockdown Minister Swann said people should not leave their homes between 8pm and 6am. Throughout the six weeks hospitality will be closed in its entirety except for takeaway. All non-essential retail will also shut. Off-licences will be forced to lower their shutters at 8pm.
But hotels will be opened until December 28 to accommodate Christmas bookings. Dog grooming will also be open, but car washes will shut.
Mr Swann said it was “probably the toughest decision” the Executive has taken during the pandemic.
“I think anyone who hears (last night’s) decision will realise when they see the pressures our health service has been under over the past few weeks and continues to be under... I hope understands why and accepts why we have to make these decisions,” he said.
Mrs O’Neill stressed financial support will be put in place for affected businesses during “this very challenging time”.
For those who had chosen to form a family bubble over the Christmas period, she said they would be allowed to go ahead.
Ministers did not decide to close schools, and they are set to open following the festive break, but discussions between the Education and Health Departments will continue.
The Deputy First Minister said the intervention was necessary as “we’ve never been in such a bad position as we are now”.
“I think the health service would be completely crushed in January if we didn’t intervene now,” she added.
“Whilst this is draconian in many ways, it’s necessary, and this is about saving lives, this is about saving the health service.”
It came as a further 12 people with the virus died yesterday, bringing the death toll here to 1,154, according to the Department of Health, which also recorded another 656 new positive cases.
As of yesterday there were 460 Covid patients in hospitals, 32 of them in intensive care units, as the hospital occupancy rate stood at 104%.
The welcomed by the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland chair Tom Black, who acknowledged six weeks was a “great sacrifice for us all”.