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Northern Ireland restrictions sink in as Covid-19 tightens its grip

Business community warns Executive's bid to halt spread will be devastating for economy

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Health Minister Robin Swann, Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Ian Young and Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride

Health Minister Robin Swann, Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Ian Young and Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride

Health Minister Robin Swann, Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Ian Young and Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride

A record 1,217 new Covid-19 cases were reported on Wednesday as Northern Ireland woke up to the news of a raft of tough 'circuit-breaker' restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus.

It followed a long night of dithering and deliberation at Stormont as Executive ministers talked into the early hours of Wednesday morning to hammer out the new measures.

As had been widely expected, hospitality will bear the brunt of the new rules, with premises shutting for four weeks from Friday, except for takeaways and deliveries, while an extended mid-term break for schools from Monday was also confirmed.

However other measures - including a ban on off-licences and supermarkets selling alcohol after 8pm and the closure of hair and beauty salons - came as more of a shock to those in the respective industries.

First Minister Arlene Foster outlined the Executive's decisions on the series of tougher new measures to stem the spread of coronavirus at a special Assembly sitting.

They also include:

  • A 25-person limit will be placed on funerals and weddings with wedding receptions also prohibited;
  • People should work from home unless unable to do so, and are urged not to take unnecessary journeys;
  • Indoor sporting activities are not allowed and outdoor contact sports will be limited to elite athletes; and
  • Off licences will be required to shut at 8pm.

However, retail outlets will remain open, as will gyms for individual training and churches will stay open, but require face coverings.

While the measures don't amount to the same full-scale lockdown similar to that imposed during the first wave of the virus, they mark a significant ramping up of Stormont's response to the spiralling infection rates.

Mrs Foster said she hoped further support measures for those affected by the latest restrictions would be signed off at another meeting of ministers on Thursday.

"We fully appreciate that this will be difficult and worrying news for a lot of people," she told MLAs. "The Executive has taken this decision because it is necessary, and we discussed the impacts in great detail. We do not take this step lightly."

The DUP leader also insisted the restrictions would not last any longer than four weeks.

She added: "There will be better days if people take personal responsibility for their actions.

"I plead with people today, please take personal responsibility for your actions."

That message was echoed by the Health Minister Robin Swann who called on the public to "be part of the resistance".

"Do it for your loved ones," he urged. "If we successfully suppress this virus now, we have a chance of a better Christmas."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said that given the rapid rise in cases here "to do nothing was not an option", adding that the fight against Covid-19 must be done on an all-island basis.

While politicians on Wednesday moved to defend the tighter restrictions, they faced a backlash from businesses.

Belfast Chamber of Commerce chief executive Simon Hamilton branded the new rules an "economy breaker" not a "circuit breaker".

Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said they would mean thousands of job losses in the industry and urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to step in with extra support.

Mr Johnson later confirmed that Northern Ireland will receive "at least" £2.4bn in additional funding through Barnett consequentials to help tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Responding to a question from DUP MP Gregory Campbell in the Commons, he added: "We will look at further measures, imaginative and creative measures, to support jobs and livelihoods across the UK."

Despite Wednesday's announcement, some key questions still remain, particularly for hotels, which are awaiting clarification on whether or not they will be operating this weekend amid reports that some were turning away deliveries on Wednesday.

Although she is a member of the Executive that announced the restrictions, Economy Minister Diane Dodds said she was talking to other ministers, trying to "clarify the specifics of the new restrictions and the potential impact on hotels, before they come into effect".

She added: "I recognise this is another tough blow for the sector and I am working with Executive colleagues to urgently identify what financial or other support can be offered to help hotels, and the wider hospitality sector, through this very difficult time."

Meanwhile those in front line healthcare said the new rules were "too little too late".

Dr Tom Black, chair of British Medical Association's Northern Ireland Council, said the delay in political decision-making has brought "our fragile health service closer to the cliff edge".

Wednesday also saw a further four deaths due to Covid-19 reported alongside the record 1,217 new cases.

It brings the death toll in the region to 602 and the total number of confirmed cases since the outbreak to 23,115. Some 6,693 people have tested positive in the last seven days.

Two of the fatalities happened within the current 24 hour reporting period, while the others occurred previously.

The deaths were three woman and one man, all aged over 80, who passed away in hospitals in the Belfast, Antrim and Newtownabbey, Mid and East Antrim and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon areas, respectively.

There are currently 164 Covid patients in hospitals here, with 24 patients in intensive care and 17 being ventilated. A total of 56 care homes are dealing with outbreaks.

In the Republic, 1,095 more Covid-19 cases were confirmed, bringing the total to 45,243.

Five more deaths with the virus were recorded, taking the total to 1,835.

Belfast Telegraph