Northern Ireland will begin a six-week lockdown from Boxing Day

Northern Ireland will begin a six-week lockdown from Boxing Day to prevent the health service being ‘crushed’: Non-essential shops will close from Christmas Eve with pubs, cafés and restaurants serving takeaways only

  • Northern Ireland will be plunged into a six-week lockdown from Boxing Day
  • Non-essential retail and close-contact services will close during the shutdown
  • Hospitality businesses will be restricted to takeaway and delivery services
  • Health officials have also proposed limiting the reopening of schools in NI  

NORTHERN IRELAND’S 6-WEEK LOCKDOWN  

  • All non-essential retail, including garden centres and homeware shops previously deemed essential, to close;
  • Close-contact services like hair and beauty salons to close;
  • Hospitality businesses restricted to takeaway and delivery only;
  • Closure of the entertainment and leisure sector;
  • All sports, including at elite level, to pause;
  • Off-licences to close by 8pm;
  • Car washes to close;
  • Hotels can stay open until December 28 to ‘accommodate the Christmas situation’  

Northern Ireland will be plunged into a six-week lockdown on Boxing Day as ministers warned ‘draconian’ action was required to prevent the health service being overrun amid rising coronavirus cases. 

The Stormont Executive agreed to close non-essential retail and close-contact services such as hair salons, while pubs, cafes and restaurants will be restricted to takeaway services.

The first week of the shutdown, which will run until January 2, will see even tighter curbs, with essential shops forced to close each day by 8pm. 

All sporting events will be banned, even at a professional level, with people being urged only to leave their home for essential reasons.  

The five-day Christmas amnesty which will see rules relaxed between December 23-27 will not be affected, while travel to and from Northern Ireland will also be permitted on December 22 and 28. 

People will also not be allowed to meet others in private gardens, while restrictions on indoor visits to people’s homes will remain in place.

Health and education officials have also suggested limiting the reopening of schools in January, with a package of measures due to be drawn up.  

Ministers will review the measures after four weeks.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she recognised the lockdown would be ‘disappointing’ for many people, but claimed that a ‘longer and deeper intervention’ was necessary.

‘The health service would be completely crushed in January if we didn’t intervene now, so while this is draconian, it’s about saving lives,’ she argued.

‘We’ve never been in such a bad position as we are now, and will be in January if this didn’t happen now.’ On Thursday, Northern Ireland recorded 656 new coronavirus cases and 12 Covid-related deaths.

It comes as Boris Johnson mulls a Tier 4 crackdown to curb rising coronavirus cases in England, with Wales due to enter a shutdown on December 28 and Scottish leaders hinting that tougher restrictions after Christmas – including a lockdown – were a ‘possibility’. 

In other coronavirus news: 

  • Rishi Sunak extended until May the £5billion-a-month furlough scheme amid fears that tough virus restrictions could extend beyond Easter;
  • Fears of a third wave mounted as daily Covid cases jumped again to 35,383, although this included 11,000 from Wales which were not recorded earlier this month because of a computer glitch;
  • London emerged as the new Covid hotspot with 319.3 cases per 100,000 people in the week to December 13, up more than 50 per cent from 199.9 in the previous week;
  • Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned that the combined impact of Covid and lockdowns would have a ‘substantial’ impact on health, education and poverty for years; 
  • Priti Patel urged families to cancel Christmas plans that involve travelling long distances, as Labour called for the five-day festive amnesty to be axed altogether;
  • Matt Hancock said the situation in Kent had become so dire that everyone in the county should now ‘behave as if they have the virus and are trying not to pass it on to somebody else’;
  • Former minister Tobias Ellwood apologised after Downing Street criticised him for breaching Covid restrictions by speaking at a Christmas dinner attended by 27 people.

Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann speaking during a press conference in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings of the Stormont Estate

Northern Ireland recorded 656 new coronavirus cases and 12 Covid-related deaths yesterday

First Minister Arlene Foster (left) and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a press conference in Parliament Buildings, Stormont

A closed and boarded up pub is seen in Belfast following the outbreak of coronavirus

A man wearing a face mask walks past a line of shoppers in Belfast city centre

Furlough is extended until APRIL as Rishi Sunak raises fears curbs could drag on longer than promised 

It came as Rishi Sunak raised fears coronavirus curbs could drag on longer as he dramatically extended the furlough scheme for another month.

The Chancellor said the huge bailout will now continue until the end of April to give businesses ‘certainty’, while firms will be able to access emergency loans until the end of March.

He also confirmed that the Budget will take place on March 3 as he sets out out the ‘next phase’ of the Government’s Covid-19 recovery plan.

The move on furlough – likely to add another £5billion to the Government’s debt mountain – is an ominous sign that restrictions could be kept in place for longer than had been hoped, with Boris Johnson previously suggesting that life could be approaching normal by next Spring.

The announcement came amid mounting fury after Matt Hancock announced the results of the Government’s first formal review of its tier system of restrictions.

The Health Secretary plunged another swathe of Tory home counties heartlands into the toughest tier of curbs and denied a downgrade to Manchester.

Meanwhile, Downing Street yesterday refused to rule out a third blanket lockdown and Mr Sunak’s furlough announcement is likely to fuel fears that England could be heading for another national shutdown. 

The Chancellor had already pushed back the close of furlough from October, which was expected to add another £30billion to the Government’s costs.

His decision to extend furlough again from the end of March to the end of April immediately prompted calls for the Chancellor to provide more support for the self-employed.

The Chancellor said: ‘We know the premium businesses place on certainty, so it is right that we enable them to plan ahead regardless of the path the virus takes, which is why we’re providing certainty and clarity by extending this support, as well as implementing our Plan for Jobs.’ 

Under the furlough scheme the Government will continue to pay 80 per cent of the salary of employees for hours not worked until the end of April.

Employers will only be required to pay wages, National Insurance Contributions (NICS) and pensions for hours worked; and NICS and pensions for hours not worked.

Health Minister Robin Swann said it was the ‘deepest and hardest’ decision ministers had faced since the beginning of the pandemic.

‘There was no other way and the message come Boxing Day [December 26] will be ‘work from home, and stay at home’,’ he added. 

Dr Michael McBride, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, claimed the situation ‘does not get more serious than this’.

‘These interventions and restrictions are absolutely necessary and I know they’ll cause concern but if we are to get this virus under control, and take the pressure off our hospitals, then these are absolutely essential,’ he said.

He also urged people ‘not to wait’ until after Christmas to start reducing their number of social contacts.  

Responding to the announcement, business leaders said the move was the news the hospitality industry had been ‘dreading for some time’.

Hospitality Ulster said the shutdown would ‘sound the death kneel’ for many firms whose trade has effectively ceased during the pandemic.

Chief executive Colin Neill said: ‘The sector now needs urgent financial assistance at the right level to offset previous debts rung up in the race to be Covid secure and make sure that it is covered during this lockdown which will take weeks, if not months, to see out.’

The Stormont Executive has said previous financial support schemes will continue for businesses forced to close. 

It comes as ministers mull over a ‘Tier 4’ crackdown after Christmas, with commuting banned, non-essential shops shut and schools closed an extra week, as officials search for new plans to keep Covid case numbers under control.

As Boris Johnson last night gave the green light to plunge large swathes of England’s Home Counties into Tier 3 – bringing the number of people living under the toughest restrictions to 38million – Government officials revealed even tougher measures could be on the way.  

The areas of southern England will join London in the highest tier tomorrow, while Manchester and the North East were told they could not move down a grade despite recording fewer cases. 

Tory MP Rob Butler said yesterday’s tier moves heralded ‘the bleakest of midwinters, especially for hospitality businesses’.

His comments came as the PM last night warned a No Deal Brexit is ‘very likely’ unless the EU gives ground on trade talks. 

Despite yesterday’s announcement of increasing restrictions on large parts of the country, experts fear the decisions will not be enough to avert more draconian measures because Covid is surging nationally.    

A Whitehall official told the Times: ‘There is a case for going further than Tier 3 and it is getting stronger.

‘[That could mean] closure of non-essential retail, stay-at-home orders. That would have to be actively considered in conversation with the local authority.’

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has previously endorsed a ‘Tier 4’ as a way of tightening restrictions in order to control the virus.

Wales meanwhile is going into another lockdown, with Scottish leaders saying that tougher virus restrictions after Christmas – including a lockdown – were a ‘possibility’.      

The PM assured Tory MPs last month that ministers would take a more ‘granular’ approach to the Covid tiers in future, following anger that many rural areas with low case numbers were being lumped in with nearby urban hotspots. 

But the first review of the tier allocations yesterday saw only a tiny number of areas move down the scale, while many more were moved up to the top tier.

Matt Hancock told MPs he regretted having to impose the curbs but said there was ‘a strong view right across Government that these actions are necessary’. Under Tier 3, pubs and restaurants can offer only takeaway or delivery and indoor entertainment venues, such as cinemas, bowling alleys and soft play centres must close.

Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann (right) during a press conference in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings of the Stormont Estate with Dr Michael McBride, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for Northern Ireland

Gerry Vernon, 73, who has bartended at The Kitchen bar in Belfast city centre for 27 years, places chairs outside for customers

People wearing face masks leaving St. Mary’s Church in Belfast city centre

Indoor socialising with other households is banned in both of the top two tiers, which now cover 98 per cent of England.

Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Peterborough, Hertfordshire, Surrey (with the exception of Waverley), Hastings and Rother (on the Kent border of East Sussex), and Portsmouth, Gosport and Havant in Hampshire were all yesterday catapulted into Tier 3.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said he was ‘not surprised but very disappointed’ to remain in Tier Three, despite now having a lower case rate than London did when it was placed in Tier 2.

He added: ‘It feels like if the North has rising cases, the North goes under restrictions; if London and the South East has rising cases, everyone stays under restrictions.’ 

The long-term effects of the pandemic will be felt across the country for many years, Professor Whitty said last night.

Writing in the chief medical officer’s annual report about national health trends, he said: ‘The combined economic impact of Covid and countermeasures to reduce the size of the Covid waves are likely to be substantial.’  

Shoppers in face masks walk through a shopping centre in Belfast city centre

Tier Three restrictions were extended yesterday so that two thirds of homes in England – and 38million people – can now expect to go into the new year under the toughest curbs. Pictured: Boris Johnson yesterday speaking with Ursula von der Leyen

Swathes of the Home Counties will join London in the highest tier tomorrow while Manchester and the North East were told they could not move down a grade despite recording fewer cases. Pictured: A map of England’s tiers

It came as Rishi Sunak raised fears coronavirus curbs could drag on longer as he dramatically extended the furlough scheme for another month.

The Chancellor said the huge bailout will now continue until the end of April to give businesses ‘certainty’, while firms will be able to access emergency loans until the end of March.

He also confirmed that the Budget will take place on March 3 as he sets out out the ‘next phase’ of the Government’s Covid-19 recovery plan.

The move on furlough – likely to add another £5billion to the Government’s debt mountain – is an ominous sign that restrictions could be kept in place for longer than had been hoped, with Boris Johnson previously suggesting that life could be approaching normal by next Spring.

The announcement came amid mounting fury after Mr Hancock announced the results of the Government’s first formal review of its tier system of restrictions.

The Health Secretary plunged another swathe of Tory home counties heartlands into the toughest tier of curbs and denied a downgrade to Manchester.

Meanwhile, Downing Street yesterday refused to rule out a third blanket lockdown and Mr Sunak’s furlough announcement is likely to fuel fears that England could be heading for another national shutdown. 

The Chancellor had already pushed back the close of furlough from October, which was expected to add another £30billion to the Government’s costs.

His decision to extend furlough again from the end of March to the end of April immediately prompted calls for the Chancellor to provide more support for the self-employed.

The Chancellor said: ‘We know the premium businesses place on certainty, so it is right that we enable them to plan ahead regardless of the path the virus takes, which is why we’re providing certainty and clarity by extending this support, as well as implementing our Plan for Jobs.’ 

Under the furlough scheme the Government will continue to pay 80 per cent of the salary of employees for hours not worked until the end of April.

Employers will only be required to pay wages, National Insurance Contributions (NICS) and pensions for hours worked; and NICS and pensions for hours not worked.

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