Lockdown restrictions to continue for NI until 5 March

A four-week extension of the coronavirus restrictions in Northern Ireland has been agreed by the Executive, with lockdown to continue until 5 March.

As UTV reported earlier, Health Minister Robin Swann had asked ministers for the extension in a bid to ease pressures on the health service.

The decision was confirmed by First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at a press conference in Dungannon on Thursday.

Read more: 21 more coronavirus-related deaths recorded in NI

The R-number is believed to have fallen to well below 1, while hospital admissions look to be slowing - but the situation remains challenging.

"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," Mrs Foster said.

"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 Stormont leaders acknowledged that the news would be "disappointing" for many, but urged everyone to continue to play their part in limiting the spread of Covid-19.

They also did not rule out the possibility of the measures still being required until at least Easter, but said it was important not to keep them in place any longer than necessary.

"We have to be proportionate and we have to only do what is necessary," Mrs Foster said.

"Whilst we have announced today that these restrictions are rolling over until 5 March, we will review that on 18 February because it would be very wrong to keep restrictions in place for any longer than is absolutely necessary."

Ms O'Neill added: "To be very honest with the public, we don't know what will come after that...

"We did discuss as an Executive today the fact that there may well need to be further restrictions, but it will depend on what we all do now.

"It's within our control in terms of our own behaviours around what we do in the next number of weeks to try and prevent that being the case."

The deputy First Minister also acknowledged that people were worrying about what the lengthy restrictions would mean for their businesses and families.

"We know that we are asking a lot of everyone - we will do everything we can to make sure you are supported during this time," she added.

Help & Support

School situation to be confirmed

The Education Minister is due to bring a paper before the Executive next week on the way forward for schools which remain largely closed for now.

They have been reminded by Peter Weir that they should only be open for children of key workers and for vulnerable pupils, after P7s at a Co Antrim primary were invited into the school to do end-of-year assessments early in the absence of the transfer test.

Grammar schools have until Friday to decide their entrance criteria, with many schools and pupils facing an uncertain few weeks.

Dismay from business leaders

Belfast Chamber of Commerce chief Simon Hamilton said: "This 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."

Angela McGowan, CBI Northern Ireland director, said the economic damage could not be underestimated.

She said: "The Northern Ireland Executive must now redouble efforts to get business support to the firms that need it as quickly as possible.

"Similarly, the UK Government must look at extending the successful Job Retention Scheme to the end of June to protect jobs and livelihoods at risk."

Colin Neill, Chief Executive of Hospitality Ulster, said: "The longer this lockdown goes on for, the more costly it becomes for the hospitality industry - especially when our lockdown calendar shows that we have now broken through the 300-day mark of being under severe restrictions or zero trading.

"Whilst another six weeks might seem a short space of time in the grand scale of the pandemic, it will be the difference in some deciding never to open again - not because they have run out of patience, but because they have run out of money trying to make it through."

Military support

The latest developments come as military staff are due to help support health care workers at Belfast's Nightingale facility.

Robin Swann announced on Wednesday that more than 100 medically-trained military personnel will be deployed to hospitals in Northern Ireland as they contend with a third surge.

Chief Executive of the Belfast Health Trust Dr Cathy Jack told a Stormont committee that military staff will work under trust management.

"This is another group of highly trained individuals that will support my staff to support the patients and deliver the care they need and I welcome this," Dr Jack said.

"They are band four equivalent staff, they are medically trained technicians able to take blood, and they will be working under our normal management structures.

"For me in Belfast, they will be focusing on helping to support the regional Nightingale."

The Belfast Trust continues to operate under significant pressure.

Dr Jack said staff absence is over 12% with many having to self-isolate after being contacted by the track and trace team.

She also apologised to families affected by the postponing of 'red flag' cancer surgery, admitting "there will be a small but significant portion of people" who will come for their surgery "too late".

  • WATCH: Belfast Trust Chief on cancellation of ref flag surgeries

Also appearing at Stormont's health committee, Chief Executive of the Southern Health Trust Shane Devlin said the number of hospital inpatients in this third surge of the pandemic was even higher than they had expected.

He pointed out that districts in his area - Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, Mid Ulster, Newry and Mourne and Down - have had the highest infection rates in Northern Ireland.

Mr Devlin also said that, at the height of the first surge of the pandemic, they had 63 inpatients with Covid. Last week, they had 272 inpatients.

"We're managing a huge number of inpatients, way far over and above anything we'd ever imagined we'd do, and that has resulted in our beds being exceptionally busy and our ICU being close to full - we have 14 out of 16 today," he said.