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House parties blamed as lockdowns looming to stem rise in Covid-19 cases in Northern Ireland

Executive to meet for crucial talks as O'Neill warns local lockdowns 'inevitable'

Stormont ministers could announce a tightening of coronavirus restrictions - including a reduction in the number of people gathering in households.

The Executive meets on Thursday afternoon for crucial talks to consider what measures to take after a 20-fold rise in case numbers.

It is understood particular concern has been expressed about parts of Belfast, and the impact of house parties as students return to university.

Health Minister Robin Swann warned "the summer is over" and he would be making recommendations for measures - localised or Northern Ireland-wide - to fellow ministers. Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said it was "inevitable" that local lockdowns will be imposed "very quickly", and hinted it could be based on postcode data.

First Minister Arlene Foster said the Executive may have to take similar interventions like those imposed in Glasgow, where households are banned from visiting others indoors.

The DUP leader also said she does not want to reintroduce widespread lockdown measures.

Sources have indicated that the Executive is reluctant for a full shut down of businesses and restaurants again to prevent further economic harm.

It is more likely any restrictions will be in line with other parts of the UK.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has banned social gatherings of more than six people in England from Monday.

The Department of Health said on Wednesday that 607 people here have tested positive for Covid-19 in the last seven days - an average of 90 a day. At the beginning of July the daily average was around four.

Another 49 were confirmed, although no further deaths were reported.

In the Republic, three people with Covid-19 have died, while another 84 cases of the virus have been confirmed, the National Public Health Emergency Team said last night.

Addressing the latest Northern Ireland figures, Mr Swann said: "Our case numbers have been rising sharply, and... more people of older age are beginning to test positive.

"Infections will spread to medically vulnerable... Once again I am asking for everyone's help in stemming the spread. It may avoid the need to introduce more drastic actions down the line."

He added: "In common with other jurisdictions we have decisions to make on how we stem a disturbing increase in Covid cases. I believe concrete action is now necessary."

Stressing that Covid-19 "remains a life and death issue", he added "non-compliance" had been what has brought "us to where we are now".

Professor Ian Young, the chief scientific adviser, said the rise of positive cases is not completely down to increased numbers of tests, explaining there had been a 20-fold increase in the number of cases in recent times compared to just a five-fold rise in the number of tests.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said: "We are now at a crossroads, individually and collectively. As a society we have stark choices to make."

He added: "We face a long and uncertain autumn and winter."

Downplaying a suggestion that Northern Ireland may be entering a 'second wave', Dr McBride said the focus was on taking effective action now.

"We are clearly in a situation where things are consistently going in the wrong direction," he said. "We have the opportunity to bend that curve now."

Meanwhile, Mrs Foster said a rise in Covid-19 cases is connected to household transmission.

She revealed that she was keen to use data to ensure any localised lockdown measure could be implemented carefully,

Ms O'Neill added: "The fact that we have data that brings you right down to the postcode level shows that we are able to adapt in a smaller geographical area where we need to.

"I think it's inevitable that we will be moving very quickly to local lockdowns that's going to be required in order to protect people."

Belfast Telegraph