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Northern Ireland: Lockdown extended until 5 March, decision next week on opening schools at earlier date

Deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill said this afternoon that the health service is facing into its “toughest week”.

Image: PA Images

Updated Jan 21st 2021, 4:52 PM

THE NORTHERN IRISH executive has agreed to extend the lockdown that has been in place since St Stephen’s Day until 5 March.

First Minister Arlene Foster said that while cases had halved in recent weeks, they remain too high. 

“It remains an appropriate and necessary response,” she said, highlighting the sustained pressure on hospitals. Demand on the NHS is Northern Ireland is expected to reach a new peak this week. 

It is not yet clear when schools will re-open in the North. Foster said today a “comprehensive discussion” will be held next week on whether schools will re-open. 

Foster said that to not sustain the lockdown further would “risk all of the hard-won gains”. 

“We need to keep pressing forward to provide our health service with the full relief and respite it needs from Covid,” she said.

“The Executive today has reviewed the current restrictions and agreed that they remain an appropriate and necessary response to the serious and imminent threat posed by Covid-19.

“Following a detailed outline from health highlighting the continuing pressures on our hospitals and ICU departments and the emergency of the highly transmissible variants, the Executive has agreed that the current restrictions will be extended for a further four weeks until 5 March 2021.

“The restrictions will be reviewed on or before 18 February.”

The further lockdown will mean non-essential retail, pubs and restaurants remain closed. 

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said while progress has been made in driving down Covid transmission rates, they are decreasing slowly.

“However it will take some time for the restrictions to have maximum impact on the course of the epidemic,” she said.

“The consequences of the very high number of cases over recent weeks is still making its way through our hospitals where the health service situation at this moment in time is extremely challenging, in fact I believe the health service is facing into its toughest week yet throughout the course of the pandemic.”

The announcement was made this afternoon. 

Earlier today, the Northern Ireland Department of Health reported 732 new cases of Covid-19 along with 21 further deaths.

There are 806 Covid-positive patients in hospitals, with 70 in intensive care.

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To date, 166,538 vaccines have been administered in Northern Ireland, of which 144,212 were first doses and 22,326 were second doses.

The move to extend the lockdown in the North is one that will be replicated by the Irish government next week.

Speaking to Ireland AM this morning, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Level-5 restrictions will likely continue “well into” February

Martin said the third wave of the pandemic continues to be “very challenging” and that transmission rates are too high to ease restrictions.

“We need to get the numbers down,” Martin said, adding he believes “it will be well into the next month” before any easing of restrictions happens.

Meanwhile, Belfast Chamber of Commerce chief Simon Hamilton said the lockdown extension will come as “little surprise to most businesses”.

“There is though huge ongoing frustration that financial support for closed businesses needed to save jobs is still slow to materialise and many, including lots in Belfast city centre, are falling through the cracks,” he said. 

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Sean Murray

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