Students may be prevented from returning home at the weekends if coronavirus continues to spread in Belfast and other university towns, Arlene Foster has warned.
Mrs Foster’s comments come amid concerns about the potential for students residing together in large numbers during the week bringing Covid-19 back to their local areas.
The fears have been intensified by ongoing issues around young people gathering in the Holylands student area of Belfast for house parties in contravention of coronavirus rules.
Police issued dozens more Covid-19 notices in the area overnight on Monday, however they highlighted that the majority of offending young people were not actually students.
#FreshersNI— Police Service NI (@PoliceServiceNI) September 21, 2020
If you are planning on a get together to get to know your fellow students please be aware of the current Health Protection Regulations.
Find out more at: https://t.co/AMjMmu8o9m pic.twitter.com/q7dFH7iBq6
Issues around students residing in houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs) have been thrown into sharp relief by Stormont’s move to ban households gathering together indoors.
While the authorities are currently allowing students to continue to travel home at weekends to see family and friends, Mrs Foster cautioned that this could change if the infection rates continue to increase.
“We’re engaging very heavily with the universities because we’re very much aware of the fact that young people are now back into that sort of a setting,” she said.
“Obviously, we are curbing their restrictions by saying that they should stay within their household bubbles.”
Asked whether students should be able to continue to go home at weekends, the DUP leader said: “Obviously, that’s something that we’re considering at this present moment in time.
“We’re not saying that people shouldn’t go home at the weekend at present.
“And we hope that we don’t have to move to that stage, but we may have to if the virus continues to spread in Belfast and indeed in other parts of Northern Ireland where students are residing.”
Over Monday night into the early hours of Tuesday, police issued 37 Covid notices, 10 prohibition notices and one community resolution notice in the Holylands and nearby Stranmillis area of south Belfast.
PSNI chief inspector Gavin Kirkpatrick said: “In addition to attending and stopping a number of parties last night, we also had to contend with large numbers of young people congregating in the Agincourt Avenue area.
“While police, council officers and university representatives engaged with many of the young people to give them advice and guidance, it is critical that young people who have moved to the area take personal responsibility for their behaviour.
“To date, our preliminary enquiries have indicated that the majority of people we’ve issued Covid notices to in the area are not students. Police have a very simple message to anyone considering visiting or attending parties in this residential part of south Belfast – don’t.”
The officer added: “Our robust policing operation will continue over the coming days with our partner agencies, including representatives from Belfast City Council and both universities.“