Northern Ireland’s new six-week lockdown is “in large part” the “sustained lockdown” of March, Health Minister Robin Swann has said.
The new restrictions will begin on 26 December with non-essential shops closing after Christmas Eve.
Even tighter restrictions will be in place for a week from Boxing Day as shops must close and no gatherings are permitted between 20:00 GMT and 06:00.
Mr Swann said the measures were being brought in “with a heavy heart”.
He said he was “very mindful” of the affect the last year has had on lives and livelihoods.
“We are in, large part, returning to the sustained lockdown introduced in March,” he said.
“Once again, a heavy responsibility will rest on all of us to remain at home as much as possible over the course of the six-week period.”
The reproduction number is currently 1 to 1.2 but there are fears it could rise to between 1.4 and 1.8 over Christmas.
Northern Ireland’s chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young told BBC Radio Foyle that without a lockdown, the number of deaths and hospital admissions would have been “severe”.
“While there will be huge pressures on the hospital system in January it should allow our colleagues to cope.”
He added: “There is no doubt that if you allow the epidemic to proceed in an uncontrolled way, you allow everybody if they choose to live their lives completely as normal with a dangerous virus in circulation, then inevitably there will be very severe consequences and many, many deaths.”
Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said the lockdown may not be universally welcomed but it is “absolutely necessary”.
There have only been five days since 21 October when hospital occupancy has been below 95%, he said.
When occupancy “goes above 90% there’s an increased risk of harm to patients,” he added.
“This is really serious, it does not get anymore serious than it is now. Don’t wait for restrictions begin, we all need to act now to get this virus under control”.
However, business organisations have warned the new lockdown could “sound the death knell” for many businesses.
What are the restrictions?
Close-contact services, such as hair salons, will have to shut and pubs, cafes and restaurants will be restricted to takeaway services.
The first week of the lockdown, running until 2 January, will see even tighter measures with essential shops having to close each day by 20:00 GMT.
No sporting events will be permitted at all – even at elite level – with people being urged only to leave their home for essential reasons.
The restrictions for the six-week period include:
- Closure of hospitality and non-essential retail with a stricter demarcation between essential and non-essential retail than that deployed during the recent circuit breaker.
- Click-and-collect retail will not be permitted, and homeware will not be categorised as essential retail.
- Off sales (including from bars) will be permitted from 08:00 on Monday to Saturday, and from 10:00 on Sunday, until 20:00 on any day.
- Hospitality businesses will only be allowed to offer takeaway and delivery food.
- Closure of close-contact businesses.
- Places of worship can remain open under strict conditions.
- MoT centres are expected to stay open.
- Clarification is to be given on where vehicles can be washed ahead of MoT.
- Tradespeople are expected to be allowed into homes for essential maintenance.
- Childcare bubbles will continue.
- Formal shielding will not resume, but “stronger advice” will be issued.
In addition, there will be a one-week period of additional restrictions from 26 December to 2 January. Between 20:00 and 06:00 during this period:
- All businesses must close between these hours.
- No indoor or outdoor gatherings of any kind will be permitted after 20:00 and before 06:00, including at sporting venues.
- Outdoor exercise will be permitted only with members of your own household.
- No household mixing will be permitted in private gardens or indoors in any setting between these times, except for emergencies or the provision of health or care services or where households have chosen to form a Christmas bubble for a period of time between 23 to 27 December with provision for travel a day either side when absolutely necessary.
Mr Swann added that the “short, sharp interventions” introduced in the autumn had not worked, so the executive was returning to what had worked earlier in the year,
He said that about one third of care homes had now received the first of the vaccinations, describing them as the “start of fighting back”.
He said there was no intention to extend the “advanced restrictions” of the first week of the lockdown beyond that.
Mr Swann added that discussions are taking place between the health and education departments over what “additional factors” can be put in place in schools, amid speculation as to when schools can return.
In its modelling, the Department of Health said: “We anticipate that case numbers will continue to rise as we approach Christmas, with a more rapid increase as we near the holiday period.
“There is likely to be a decrease over the holiday period as a result of reduced testing, but this will not be indicative of reduced community transmission.
“Hospital admissions will remain stable or increase slightly until shortly before Christmas when they will begin to rise again.”
On Thursday, a further 12 Covid-linked deaths were recorded in NI and there was a further 656 cases of the virus.
‘It’s effectively a curfew’
We’ve had the “softly, softly” approach – now it appears the executive is going to use the stick.
The decision arrived at by ministers was, we’re told, unanimous and they could not ignore the scenes of ambulances queued outside hospitals this week and severe pressures on the system.
The changes mean Boxing Day and new year’s celebrations are going to be nothing like what we’ve ever had before – the initial measures in the first week of lockdown are an attempt to clamp down on house parties and suppress the virus.
But there’s no doubt this will be a hard sell in some respects – getting people to wilfully comply with what effectively amounts to a curfew will be not be easy.
We’re told visibility of the police will also increase that week, but there’s been little detail about additional enforcement.
Northern Ireland is ending 2020 on a sombre note and going into 2021 with a difficult task ahead – to try to get back to a place where an unpredictable virus can be brought under some sort of control.