PLANS to reopen bars and restaurants on Friday look set to be pushed back two weeks amid fears of a coronavirus resurgence that would cancel Christmas.
The Executive is due to make an announcement on extending restrictions tomorrow, but Sunday Life understands hotels could be made exempt, with food and drink facilities open to guests.
Government sources told this newspaper that the current rate of Covid-19 deaths - yesterday saw the highest since the latest lockdown was introduced - coupled with increased hospital admissions had "wrecked" any prospect of a free-for-all Friday on November 13.
But they are holding out hope hotels could open, saying: "There hasn't been a decision made yet, but there is a strong case for hotels being allowed to open, with food and drink available to guests in bars and restaurant settings."
Stormont insiders admit the scathing assessment of Dr Tom Black, the Chairman of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland, spooked Stormont ministers.
He described opening up the hospitality sector this Friday, while deaths and infections are at a high rate, as an "act of careless vandalism".
Our source said: "Everyone was taken aback by this assessment. It reinforced the arguments of Robin Swann (Health Minister) and Nichola Mallon (Infrastructure Minister), who are the most vocal supporters for restrictions being extended.
"The feeling within the Executive is, if we see these restrictions through until the end of November, it will allow families to meet up for Christmas and restaurants and pubs to reopen."
Ministers accept this will lead to an increase in the virus, but this could be offset with the introduction of further restrictions in January, the quietest month in the hospitality calendar.
Our source added: "We need to be realistic. It's pointless having restrictions in place over Christmas as they will be ignored. They could be reintroduced in January if cases significantly rise again after Christmas."
There were a further 15 deaths from Covid-19 yesterday and 528 new cases in Northern Ireland, bringing the local death toll to 774.
Since the outbreak began in March 42,497 positive tests have been recorded. There are currently 391 patients in hospital, with 53 in intensive care.
Hospital bed occupancy stands at 96%, with 22 of 135 intensive care unit beds remaining free.
Covid-19 enforced closures of hotels over the past four weeks have cost the industry £7million.
Northern Ireland Hotels Federations chief Janice Gault called for a firm reopening date, saying that owners have spent £5million on making premises safe and training staff.
"In order to trade viably there needs to be a sustainable framework agreed for hotels and the wider industry," she added.