Northern Ireland will be plunged back into a full lockdown for six weeks from Boxing Day, it is understood.
The plan has been agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive, according to the PA news agency. Ministers met for several hours on Thursday into the evening as the region struggles to suppress coronavirus, with the hospital occupancy rate at 104%.
Measures will include the closing of all non-essential retail as well as close contact services, while the hospitality sector will be confined to takeaway services only. It follows a similar move by the Welsh government, which announced that a level four lockdown would begin on December 28 yesterday.
It is understood that there will be no changes made to the Christmas bubbling arrangements.
The move means different parts of the UK will again be out of step, despite previously agreeing a ‘four nations’ approach to the festive period. It will also raise question marks about whether England and Scotland could be forced into lockdowns after Christmas, when three different households will be allowed to meet for five days inside.
Yesterday, the leaders of Wales, Scotland and England signed a joint statement on coronavirus rules – but no one from Northern Ireland signed the document.
Boris Johnson urged people to do all they can to stop the spread of the virus over the festive period and see the limits as ‘maximums not targets’.
The measures in Northern Ireland will be reviewed after four weeks.
Case numbers continue to rise there despite a recent two-week circuit-breaker.
Health chiefs have cited low compliance with the regulations and guidance as a reason infections, hospital admissions and death rates remain relatively high.
Hospitals across the region are running over capacity.
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service announced on Thursday that paramedics from the Irish Republic are set to bolster their numbers this weekend.
Michael Bloomfield, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS), said the move is ‘relatively unusual’ and reflects the pressure they are under.
On Tuesday, queues of ambulances were witnessed at accident and emergency departments (EDs) across Northern Ireland as patients were treated in car parks due to a lack of capacity inside the hospitals.
Ahead of Thursday’s executive meeting, economy minister Diane Dodds said Northern Ireland was in an ‘extremely challenging position’ in terms of the virus’s transmission.
She said: ‘I have said over and over again how difficult this cycle of lockdown is for the economy, we have published data on the cost of the cycle of lockdown to the economy, but we’ll wait and see what the discussion at the executive brings forward.’
Northern Ireland’s death toll now stands at 1,154.
Another 656 new cases of the virus were recorded today, while figures indicated pressure remained high on hospitals with 460 Covid-19 positive patients, including 32 in intensive care.
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