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Late night discussions for Stormont Executive amid spiralling Covid-19 cases in North

Northern Ireland has seen a dramatic increase in positive Covid-19 cases in recent weeks.

Image: PA Images

Updated Oct 13th 2020, 10:15 PM

THE STORMONT EXECUTIVE is holding a late-night meeting amid mounting expectation Northern Ireland may be facing the prospect of a circuit-break lockdown.

The weekly meeting of the powersharing administration, scheduled for Thursday, was brought forward in an indication that decisions on fresh restrictions are imminent amid rapidly increased virus spread.

The meeting got under way just after 9.30pm for talks on how to tackle spiralling Covid-19 infection rates in the region. However, the meeting was adjourned after 10 minutes.

It is understood SDLP infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon asked for time for the smaller parties in the Executive to read the health paper.

It is due to reconvene at 11pm.

Assembly members have been told to be on standby for a late-night sitting of the legislature to be briefed on any measure that might be agreed by the Executive.

Ministers are debating whether to trigger a circuit-break lockdown, potentially for four weeks, that would see all pubs and restaurants closed. 

A paper from Health Minister Robin Swann has warned that infection rates will continue rising if both schools and the hospitality sector remain open.

First Minister Arlene Foster said the decisions to be made are not easy.

“We will have an Executive meeting later on this afternoon to discuss the issue and discuss what it is we can do as an Executive to try and halt the rise of Covid-19,” she told the Assembly this afternoon.

“Some people have said it is about health versus wealth, I think that is a completely false analysis… poverty kills and unemployment kills as well. Therefore it is a balancing act between making sure that we deal with Covid-19 but that we also try and protect our economy, protect our society as we know it and indeed family life as we know it.

These are huge decisions, none of them are easy.

embedded4423464 Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster Source: NI Assembly/PA Images

Earlier, it emerged that an intensive care unit at Northern Ireland’s Nightingale hospital has been reopened in response to escalating Covid admissions in Belfast.

The facility is not yet being stood up on a region-wide basis, but will be accepting Covid-19 patients being treated within the Belfast Trust area.

The Belfast Trust has also cancelled 105 planned surgeries at Belfast City Hospital and Musgrave Park Hospital for the next two weeks to free up staff to respond to the worsening coronavirus situation.

A further seven deaths with Covid-19 and another 863 cases were reported by the Department of Health today.

Some 6,286 new positive cases of the virus have been detected in the last seven days, bringing the total number of cases in the region to 21,898.

There are currently 150 patients in hospitals with Covid-19, including 23 in intensive care.

Derry City and Strabane Council area remains the worst hit in Northern Ireland, with a case incidence rate of 970 per 100,000 people over the last seven days.

That is more than double the next highest rate, which is 462 per 100,000 in Belfast.

Mid Ulster now has a rate of 401, while the Newry, Mourne and Down Council area has a prevalence of 315 per 100,000.

Mid and East Antrim remains the areas with the lowest infection rate, at 95 per 100,000.

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embedded255820677 Michael McBride Source: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Images

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young have already recommended a country-wide lockdown lasting four to six weeks.

The aim is to reduce the reproduction rate of the virus to below one infected for every person diagnosed.

Ministers have been warned that it is not considered likely that the R rate can be less than one with both schools and hospitality open.

Officials previously urged school closures for a period within the lockdown, though not necessarily for the entirety of it.

They have said action needs to be taken within days and have identified the six-week lockdown as providing the best chance of Northern Ireland reaching Christmas without the need for another.

Foster indicated yesterday that she is not in favour of closing schools.

The suggestion of a six-week, Northern Ireland-wide lockdown was questioned by a senior DUP MP.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson queried why such a move would be required across the region, given the marked variations in infection rates in different areas.

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