Northern Ireland is to announce wide-ranging new Covid-19 restrictions to try to contain exploding rates of infection.
The measures are likely to include the closure of many businesses and schools and fresh curbs on gatherings over several weeks, amounting to a partial lockdown.
The Stormont executive is expected to unveil the plan in a statement to the region’s assembly at 10.30am on Wednesday.
Northern Ireland’s cumulative seven-day rate of infections per 100,000 people is 334, one of the highest in Europe. Derry city and the Strabane council area have a rate of 970 per 100,000 people.
On Tuesday, the department of health reported seven deaths and a further 863 infections. In the last seven days, 6,286 new cases of the virus have been recorded, raising the total since the pandemic began to 21,898.
The Belfast health trust on Tuesday cancelled 105 elective surgeries because of Covid-related pressure, saying it had reached a “trigger point” for admitting patients to intensive care.
Of 150 people being treated in hospital for coronavirus, 23 were in intensive care and 15 on ventilators. At two hospitals run by the Northern health and social care trust more than 30 nurses were self-isolating because of a Covid-19 outbreak.
In a video posted overnight, the first minister, Arlene Foster, said the region’s government would strive to financially support those affected by fresh restrictions. The Democratic Unionist party leader hinted that schools would close for a short spell.
“Ministers are elected to decide and to make decisions, and one of the other issues that we feel very passionately about in the DUP is education and the life chances of our young people,” Foster said. “Therefore it is critical that we do not have any long-term closures in our schools and that’s something that we feel very, very strongly about.
“Our health service will need to scale up in the coming days, We will need to continue to look for a modern, strong, reformed health service and we are also very clear that whatever we put in place will only be in place for a limited period of time.”
Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minister and deputy leader of Sinn Féin, said the executive would try to cushion the blow. “We know this is hard,” she said.
There was intense behind-the-scenes wrangling in the power-sharing executive on Tuesday night, with the DUP balking at demands from Sinn Féin and other parties for a sharp “circuit breaker” lockdown. One mooted compromise was for schools to close for two weeks while businesses in certain sectors, including hospitality, would shut for longer.
The chief medical officer for Northern Ireland, Michael McBride, and the chief scientific adviser, Ian Young, have recommended a Northern Ireland-wide lockdown lasting four to six weeks. The region has looser restrictions than many parts of the UK.
Authorities in the Republic of Ireland will face pressure to mirror Northern Ireland’s new restrictions in border counties.