Northern Ireland is to close schools, pubs and restaurants in a raft of new restrictions to try to contain exploding rates of Covid-19 infection.
Arlene Foster, the first minister, announced the partial lockdown on Wednesday at a special sitting of the Stormont assembly in response to what has become a pandemic hotspot.
The new rules start on Friday and are to last four weeks with the exception of schools, which will shut for two weeks.
The hospitality sector will close apart from deliveries and takeaways. Off-licences and supermarkets cannot sell alcohol after 8pm. There will be no indoor sport or organised contact sport involving mixing of households, other than at elite level.
Close-contact services, apart from essential health services, are to cease. Mobile hairdressers and make-up artists are banned from from working in homes. Gyms can remain open for individual training but no classes are permitted. Places of worship can stay open but people must wear face coverings when entering and exiting.
Bubbling will be limited to 10 people, with no overnight stays unless people are in a bubble. Universities will be encouraged to use distance learning only.
“The executive has taken this decision because it is necessary,” Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, told the assembly. “We do not take this step lightly.” She said the measures did not amount to a lockdown and promised financial supports to cushion businesses. Some business leaders had lobbied against fresh restrictions, warning of bankruptcies and job losses.
Foster implored people and businesses to get “back to the basics” of social distancing, hand hygiene and other measures and hinted at further measures should infection rates continue to climb. “We will need to exit these arrangement most carefully.”
Northern Ireland’s cumulative seven-day rate of infections per 100,000 people is 334, one of the highest in Europe. Derry city and the Strabane council area have a rate of 970 per 100,000 people – far outstripping Liverpool, England’s worst hit city, with 634 cases per 100,000 people.
On Tuesday Northern Ireland’s department of health reported seven deaths and another 863 infections. Some 6,286 new cases of the virus have been recorded in the last seven days, raising the total since the pandemic began to 21,898.
The Belfast health trust cancelled 105 elective surgeries because of Covid-related pressure, saying it had reached a “trigger point” for admitting patients to intensive care.
Of 150 people being treated in hospital for coronavirus 23 are in intensive care and 15 are on a ventilator. At two hospitals run by the Northern health and social care trust more than 30 nurses are self-isolating because of a Covid-19 outbreak.
The new restrictions came amid intense behind-the-scenes wrangling in the power-sharing executive, with the DUP balking at demands from Sinn Féin and other parties for a sharper “circuit-breaker” lockdown, including longer school closures.
The chief medical officer, Michael McBride, and the chief scientific adviser, Ian Young, have recommended a Northern Ireland-wide lockdown lasting four to six weeks.
Until now the region currently had looser restrictions than many parts of the UK. Authorities in the Republic of Ireland will face pressure to impose similar restrictions in Ireland’s border counties, which now have Ireland’s highest rates.