Northern Ireland news

Tougher UK Covid-19 lockdown measures discussed at Stormont

Eileen Lynch receives the first of two doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, administered by Dr Michael McKenna, at Falls Surgery on the Falls Road, Belfast. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire 

The Stormont executive is meeting this evening to discuss the possibility of further coronavirus restrictions in Northern Ireland.

First Minister Arlene Foster said she would be joining a call with the British government at 5pm to discuss the "Coronavirus response across the four nations".

"There will be an Executive meeting at 6pm immediately afterwards," she tweeted.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said an "urgent executive meeting" had been called to discuss the "fast moving and volatile Covid situation".

"Urgent decisive action is required to respond," she added in a tweet.

British prime minister Boris Johnson will tonight make a televised address setting out new emergency measures to control the spread of coronavirus in England, Downing Street has said.

A No 10 spokesman said that the move was in response to the "rapidly escalating" numbers of infections following the emergence of the new variant.

The statement, to be made at 8pm, will be followed by the recall of Parliament on Wednesday so MPs can debate the measures.

Stormont is meeting after a further 1,801 positive cases of the virus were recorded by the Department of Health, bringing the total for the past seven days to 12,507.

Hospitals remained under pressure with a 99% occupancy rate. There were 513 Covid-19 positive patients, 39 of whom were in intensive care units.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride described those figures as "deeply troubling".

"I think it is down to different factors, the relaxation we saw in the run up to the Christmas period, we did see more people mixing and coming together, and that's understandable given the separation that people have had from family and friends over the past year," he told the BBC.

"I don't yet think the new variant, which we know is in circulation in Northern Ireland, is playing a significant part. I don't believe it yet is the dominant strain.

"But what it does demonstrate is that our health service is going to come under extreme pressures in the coming weeks, and we must all continue to play our part to protect each other, protect our family and friends and protect our health service."

A six-week lockdown came into effect in Northern Ireland on Boxing Day, which included the closing of non-essential retail, most of the hospitality industry and close-contact services.

An 8pm to 6am curfew applied for the first week of the latest lockdown.

Dr McBride said the Executive will look at whether more is needed when it meets this evening.

"We have put in place a significant number of restrictions, there are not many more restrictions which remain open to us," he said.

"So it's a combination of restrictions but also most importantly of us all following the advice and abiding by those restrictions. Now is not the time to duck or to dodge or to find a way around the restrictions.

"The vast majority in Northern Ireland are abiding by the guidance and following the regulations, it's important now that everybody else does as well.

"We need to keep this virus in check, we need to get back in control of it again."

Most of Scotland will be placed in lockdown from tomorrow for the whole of January to tackle the rising spread of the new coronavirus strain.

The PSNI said today they had broken up almost 100 house parties over the last week despite strict rules against indoor gatherings.

Police also issued 339 £200 fines for breaches of the coronavirus regulations.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said it is "really disappointing to see that there are still people not taking the risk of this virus seriously".

Today, Eileen Lynch (94) became one of the first people in the north to receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.

It was delivered at a GP surgery on the Falls Road in West Belfast this afternoon.

Up to 11,000 people aged over 80 are set to receive the vaccination this week.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said: "It is a step change in terms of the vaccine programme, because this is (a programme) that will allow us to get the vaccine out to people through general practices and what we now need to do is continue to vaccinate those most vulnerable and at risk as safely and quickly as we possibly can."

He added: "It most certainly is a game changer.

"It is what we have been waiting for."

This morning, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said primary school transfer tests should not proceed amid concern over the spread of Covid-19.

Most school pupils are being taught remotely this week with schools currently scheduled to reopen on Monday January 11.


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