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Coronavirus R-rate could be as high at 1.8 in Northern Ireland as it records 43 more cases

The coronavirus rate of infection could be as high as 1.8 in Northern Ireland - as the country records 43 more cases within 23 clusters.

The Department of Health said the R-rate rose from between 0.5 and one last week, to between 0.8 and 1.8 this week, in a dramatic escalation of Covid-19 in the region.

R represents the number of individuals who, on average, will be infected by a person with the virus.  

It comes as more than 20 coronavirus clusters have been identified in Northern Ireland.

Of the 23 pinpointed in the region since May 25 when the test and trace programme went live, 11 clusters remain open, according to the Public Health Agency (PHA).

First Minister Arlene Foster at a press confrerence at Dublin Castle for the first summit of the North South Ministerial Council on July 31, 2020. More than 20 coronavirus clusters have been identified in Northern Ireland

It means the planned reopening of pubs and bars that don't sell food has been pushed back to September 1.  

First Minister Arlene Foster said: 'Because of the concern around the level of community transmission and the desire to frankly prioritise the reopening of our schools... we have decided that it is prudent to pause the reopening of our public houses.'

Some 168 cases of Covid-19 have been associated with the clusters, with nine areas connected to five or more cases.

Earlier this week, two businesses in Newcastle, Co Down, closed temporarily following outbreaks among their staff.

It means the planned reopening of pubs and bars that don't sell food has been pushed back to September 1. Pictured, a closed pub in Belfast

The statement from the PHA came on Thursday as the Department of Health's daily updates showed 43 more positive cases of coronavirus have been detected in the region, bringing the total to 6,049.

No new deaths were recorded on Thursday, leaving the total in the region at 556, according to departmental figures.

The PHA has defined a cluster as two or more laboratory-confirmed cases of Covid-19 among individuals associated with a key setting, with illness onset dates within a 14-day period.

Key settings which have seen a cluster include workplaces, retail or hospitality premises, domestic gatherings, and sporting settings, however the PHA said the transmission risk is highest in a household setting.

Key settings which have seen a cluster include workplaces, retail or hospitality premises, domestic gatherings, and sporting settings. Pictured, parishioners wearing face masks in Armagh on June 29

Since July, the average number of close contacts linked to cases has more than doubled. 

The rise may be attributed to the gradual easing of lockdown measures, but may also be explained by the relaxing of attitudes to social distancing.

Dr Gerry Waldron, head of health protection at the PHA, said: 'Clusters are managed through the contact tracing programme, and where we need to advise or inform the public of any increased risk to public health we will do so in a timely manner.

'In the past seven days, five clusters have been identified. Thirty-five cases have been associated with these clusters, with 239 close contacts.

'This should act as a timely reminder that we must not become complacent - coronavirus remains in circulation and we have seen an increase in cases in recent weeks. It is therefore essential that we remember the key advice to help keep ourselves and those around us safe.

'Maintain social distancing, wash your hands regularly, and get tested if you display any symptoms of coronavirus.

Prison officers wearing PPE clothing as they await new committals at HMP Maghaberry in Lisburn, Co Antrim

'Speculation around current clusters of Covid-19 across Northern Ireland is not helpful.

'We will not be commenting on individual cases of Covid-19 or going into the detail of every incident that emerges, as this could lead to people being identified, create stigma, and focus attention on individuals, families or groups, and therefore deter others with symptoms coming forward to be tested.' 

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said while community transmission remains low in Northern Ireland, the number of positive tests per day has increased three-fold from early July.

Chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said: 'The most recent data for Northern Ireland underlines the need for continued vigilance.

'There are five key steps each of us can take to keep ourselves and others safe - rigorously maintain social distancing; wash our hands well and often; wear face coverings in enclosed spaces where social distancing is difficult; co-operate fully with the Test, Trace and Protect programme, and download the Stop Covid NI app.' 

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