Chief scientific officer warns inaction would result in thousands of deaths
Conversations 'ongoing' on return of schools in January
Schools in Northern Ireland will reopen in the first week of January, Education Minister Peter Weir has confirmed.
In a statement issued on Friday evening, Mr Weir said his main priority has been to protect children's education mental health and wellbeing.
"I believe that this can best be achieved through face-to-face learning and social engagement in schools," he added.
“I am mindful of the impact the pandemic is having on our children and young people, particularly those who are vulnerable and from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have a high number of vulnerable children in Northern Ireland, for many of these pupils school is a safe haven and closing schools will immediately deprive them of this safe space.
“That is why I have decided that it is in the best interests of all pupils for schools to open in the first week of January so that their education is not disrupted any further.
“I want to again thank school leaders, teachers and staff who have done tremendous work, under very difficult circumstances, to keep schools safe.
“I know that they will continue to reinforce departmental guidance, including the appropriate wearing of masks within schools and on school transport.
“For my part, I will consider what further steps can be taken to help and support schools and will continue to seek the views of principals, school staff and pupils on this issue.
“Finally, I want to wish principals, school staff, pupils and everyone who works in education a Happy Christmas. The New Year will bring challenges but by continuing to work together we can get through this.”
Meanwhile, Arlene Foster has said NI's spiraling Covid cases are due to the "failure of society as a whole".
Mrs Foster also singled out Sinn Fein for criticism, claiming the attendance of senior figures at IRA veteran Bobby Storey's funeral in June, at a time when strict limits on numbers were in place, had damaged the public health messaging.
Her remarks came after Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill accused the DUP of ignoring public health advice around lockdown decisions last month.
Mrs Foster said: "We do find ourselves in a particularly bad place, I very much regret that that is the case and it's a failure of society as a whole that we have had to introduce these restrictions in the draconian way that they are coming in on Boxing night.
"Last night we did take a very draconian decision, one which I never thought we would have to take. I very much regret the fact that we have had to take it, but we needed to take it and we're facing a great deal of difficulty across Northern Ireland."
She said people needed to take personal responsibility for their actions in the time ahead.
"We are facing very, very difficult times across Northern Ireland," said the DUP leader.
"Of course before the end of June last year compliance in Northern Ireland was very good and in fact we were the envy of other colleagues in the United Kingdom.
"But at the end of June, one party, Sinn Fein, decided whilst they made the laws they were also above the laws. And now we find ourselves in a situation where messaging is very difficult. We've seen a breakdown in compliance and I very, very much regret that to be the case."
It comes as a further 12 coronavirus deaths and 510 new cases were reported by the Department of Health.
A total of 3,539 people have now tested positive over the past seven days. A total of 60,797 people have tested positive in Northern Ireland so far in the pandemic.
The department's death toll currently stands at 1,166.
There are currently 445 patients in Northern Ireland hospitals with the virus and 31 patients in intensive care units, 26 of whom are ventilated.
Hospital occupancy is at 102% and there are 82 active care home outbreaks.
Follow how Friday's coverage unfolded: