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Northern Ireland coronavirus Q&A: Everything you need to know about latest two-week circuit-breaker lockdown

Northern Ireland has now entered a two-week circuit breaker lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19 and protect the health services.

Many businesses, which were closed under a previous circuit break, reopened across Northern Ireland on Friday, November 20 morning but were forced to close again on Friday, November 27, while other hospitality sectors like pubs and licensed restaurants will remain closed throughout.

The latest plan is aimed at easing the pressures facing hospitals after the number of infections hit worrying levels. Non-essential retail and services like hairdressers, beauticians and driving lessons will have to shut.

Takeaway hospitality will be allowed but leisure and entertainment venues will be closed.

First Minister Arlene Foster said the “tough, carefully timed, intervention” is needed to give “the best chance to have a safe and happy Christmas and further into the new year period”.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the scientific evidence presented to the Executive “paints a stark picture” of the situation we face.

Here’s everything you need to know about the current restrictions:

We’ve been here before — in March and April. Will we be here again in a few weeks?

Quite possibly. The thinking is to use the next two weeks to drive the R-rate — the virus’s transmission rate — down, to try and bring a more ‘normal’ Christmas.

But once restrictions are relaxed, the rate is likely to go up. And if gatherings are allowed at Christmas, which seems likely, it could lead to more restrictions being needed in January.

With January a quiet month for retail and hospitality, it is easy to see more restrictions in early 2021.

Which businesses are being forced to close?

Businesses must close including non-essential retail, gyms and swimming pools.

Close-contact services and cafes will also have to shut while pubs and licensed restaurants will remain closed throughout.

Which businesses will stay open?

Takeaway and delivery, and food and drink in motorway services, airports and harbour terminals remain open.

Off licences will remain open, with an 8pm closing.

How long do the measures last?

The new restrictions will cover two weeks from November 27 until December 11.

Why are they needed?

The Executive has introduced another two-week circuit breaker to slow the spread of Covid-19 ahead of Christmas and protect the health service.

The R-rate - the rate of transmission of the virus - in Northern Ireland is currently sitting at “around one” which runs the risk of hospitals becoming overwhelmed with Covid-19 within weeks.

What support is there for businesses impacted by the fresh closure order?

Households across Northern Ireland will share in a £95 voucher scheme to help the high street. Finance Minister Conor Murphy announced on November 23 a £300m support package for businesses to cope with the continued impact of Covid-19.

The business scheme will furnish households with a pre-paid card for spending on the high street.

And £55m has also been provided to extend the Localised Restrictions Support Scheme to non-essential retail, leisure and entertainment firms which will have to shut from Friday under a new two-week lockdown.

There is also £20m to help company directors who have not had any other support so far - as well as:

- £20m to extend the 12 month rate holiday to the manufacturing sector.

- £10.6m for 1,000 wet pubs facing additional financial hardship

- £5m to top-up the tourism and hospitality scheme

- £4.1m for bed and breakfasts which previously missed out on business support because they pay domestic rates and

- £3m for local businesses grow their online sales

What is the advice around working from home?

Stay at home, work from home if possible and only leave home for essential purposes.

What about schools and colleges?

Schools and childcare facilities will remain open while universities and further education will provide learning at distance except where it is essential to provide it face to face.

What are the rules for places of worship, weddings and funerals?

Churches will close except for weddings, civil partnerships and funerals which are limited to 25 people.

The Executive has now agreed that places of worship may open for individual acts of worship, and that drive-in services would be permitted during the two-week lockdown.

What about sport, including sporting events?

No indoor sport of any kind or organised contact sport involving household mixing other than at elite level is permitted.

Individual/household outdoor exercise and school PE can continue while elite sports events will take place behind closed doors without spectators.

What about household visits?

No household gatherings of more than one household are permitted, other than current arrangements for bubbles with exceptions for caring, maintenance, house moves, etc.

Why are ministers taking action now?

Previous proposals were vetoed by the DUP last week, prompting rivals to accused the party of a major U-turn.

On Thursday, Health Minister Robin Swann returned with fresh proposals for even tougher restrictions to save hospitals from being overwhelmed.

This time the DUP joined the other parties in supporting the steps.

Click and collect for retail

A controlled "click and collect" retail service is operating during the two-week circuit breaker.

From November 27 click and collect facilities for businesses will be permitted to operate on an appointment-only basis with maximum mitigations in place.

This is an attempt to support businesses who are losing crucial trade during the run up to Christmas.

Eligible businesses will still be able to access financial support schemes during this period.

This all sounds very gloomy, is there any reason for hope?

Yes! The Executive has announced plans to vaccinate the entire population of Northern Ireland by Summer 2021.

In a phased programme due to start in December, health workers and the over-80s will be eligible first, with the authorities aiming to reach the wider population by next summer.

The programme will include the use of mass testing centres and mobile vaccination units for care homes.

First Minister Arlene Foster has said Northern Ireland will receive four million doses of vaccine once they are approved for use and have been deemed safe by regulators.

It will be rolled out in a phased system, with the first batch going to care home residents and staff, health and social care workers and people over 80.

At-risk groups and lower age ranges will follow, with the under 50s in the last phase.

Mobile teams will target care homes, while roaming staff will support district nursing services in reaching housebound patients.

It is hoped that Northern Ireland's 100,000 healthcare workers can be vaccinated at a rate of around 5,000 to 8,000 per day over three weeks.

What about the Christmas period?

Families in Northern Ireland will be reunited for five days over Christmas after ministers from across the UK agreed to relax coronavirus restrictions.

Up to three households will be allowed to mix in "bubbles" from December 23 to 27 and families can travel from one part of the UK to another.

Those travelling to and from Northern Ireland will be permitted to travel for an additional day either side of the window.

Bubble members will not be required to follow social-distancing while they are together, although they are advised to exercise caution if there are vulnerable people involved.

Belfast Telegraph