United Kingdom

Northern Ireland EXTENDS its lockdown until March 5

Northern Ireland's coronavirus lockdown rules will be extended to March 5 amid growing fears the measures could still be in place at Easter. 

Stormont health minister Robin Swann proposed the step to help drive down case numbers. 

Ministerial colleagues at the Executive in Belfast then agreed the move as First Minister Arlene Foster said the draconian curbs are needed to counter the 'serious and imminent threat posed by Covid-19'. 

The current lockdown started after Christmas and the restrictions include closing non-essential shops, keeping schools shut to most pupils and encouraging employees to work from home. 

Family gathering have also been banned while police enforcement has been stepped up in a bid to catch rule-breakers. 

First Minister Arlene Foster, pictured right and alongside deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill, said lockdown rules 'remain an appropriate and necessary response' 

Ms Foster said: '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.

'Following a detailed outline from health highlighting continuing pressures on hospitals and intensive care units and the emergence of highly-transmissible variants the Executive has agreed that the restrictions will be extended for four weeks until March 5 2021.'

The decision came as the number of new cases in Northern Ireland appeared to be easing off.   

But struggling hospitals are expected to face even greater pressures by this weekend due to the lag between infection and serious illness developing.

A further 21 people who tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland have died.

Another 732 new cases of the virus have been detected, according to the Department of Health.

There are 806 Covid-positive patients in hospitals, with 70 in intensive care.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said it was a difficult decision to prolong the curbs, which will be reviewed next month.

She said: 'It has been a long and hard road for all. There is no doubt that there are better days ahead but we need to keep working together right now to save lives and protect the health service.' 

The next review of the lockdown measures in Northern Ireland is due to take place on February 18.  

During a press conference in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, the First Minister said the reproductive number for cases – referring to the number of people that an infected person will pass the virus on to – was now down to between 0.6 and 0.8, a halving of the rate of cases in two weeks, but that transmission rates were falling slowly.

She added: 'This is undoubtedly the most difficult of times and we know the sacrifice that you're all making to save lives and as an Executive we are committed to taking every possible step to move us forward out of this pandemic.'

Business leaders reacted with dismay to the extension as they said it would be 'little surprise' to companies but warned financial support is 'still slow to materialise'.  

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