Coronavirus in the UK: Northern Ireland extends lockdown to March

Northern Ireland's coronavirus lockdown restrictions will be extended to March 5 after Stormont health minister Robin Swann proposed the step to help drive down case numbers.

Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images).

Ministerial colleagues at the Executive in Belfast agreed the move and there are suggestions the curbs could ultimately continue until Easter.

An extended lockdown began in Northern Ireland after Christmas which included closing non-essential retailers, keeping schools shut to most pupils and encouraging employees to work from home.

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Family gatherings are also prohibited and police enforcement has been stepped up.

Talking about extending the lockdown till March, Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster said: "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."

The dramatic rise of new case numbers have began to ease off in the country, however, 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 on Thursday.

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.

"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."

She acknowledged people were worrying about what the lengthy restrictions would mean for their businesses and families.

"We know that we are asking a lot of everyone, we will do everything we can to make sure you are supported during this time."

Mrs Foster said they would only keep the restrictions in place as long as they were strictly necessary.

She said the public would be disappointed but not surprised as they could see the pressure hospitals were under.

Ministers are to review the measures on February 18.

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