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Schools to close in Northern Ireland for two weeks

Publishedduration9 minutes agoSchools will close from Monday and pubs and restaurants face new restrictions from Friday, in a bid to stem cases of Covid-19, BBC News NI understands.The moves are among a number of restrictions expected to be announced in the assembly at 10:30 BST.Hospitality businesses will be limited to takeaway and delivery services for…

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Schools will close from Monday and pubs and restaurants face new restrictions from Friday, in a bid to stem cases of Covid-19, BBC News NI understands.

The moves are among a number of restrictions expected to be announced in the assembly at 10:30 BST.

Hospitality businesses will be limited to takeaway and delivery services for four weeks from Friday.

Health officials had warned infections would rise further if both schools and hospitality premises remained open.

It is understood the executive has agreed schools will close for two weeks, including the half-term holiday, until Monday 2 November, when their closure will be reviewed.

Further guidance is expected to be issued advising against unnecessary travel.

image copyrightPA Media

image captionDerry City and Strabane council area and Belfast are among the UK’s worst-hit areas

Talks ran into the early hours of Wednesday as ministers tried to reach a compromise on a range of decisions, finally agreeing to impose the following measures for four weeks from Friday:

  • Closure of the hospitality sector, apart from deliveries and takeaways
  • Other fast-food and takeaway premises to close at 23:00
  • Off-licences and supermarkets not to sell alcohol after 20:00
  • No indoor sport or organised contact sport involving mixing of households, other than at elite level
  • Close-contact services – apart from those meeting essential health needs – to close
  • Mobile hairdressers and make-up artists – also classed as close contact services – prohibited from working in homes
  • Gyms to remain open for individual training but no classes permitted
  • Places of worship to remain open but face coverings mandatory when entering and exiting

The current restrictions on household mixing are expected to remain as they are.

That would mean no mixing of households in private homes – with exceptions including those joined in social bubbles – and gatherings in gardens limited to six people from no more than two households.

On Tuesday, seven more coronavirus-related deaths were reported by Northern Ireland’s health department.

It also recorded another 863 cases of the virus, bringing Northern Ireland’s total to 21,898 – more than a quarter of which have been recorded in the past seven days.

In Derry City and Strabane, the UK’s worst-hit council area, the infection rate is 969 per 100,000 of the population in the past week.

White smoke emerged shortly after 00:30 – the tradition of late Stormont nights making a return once more.

Ministers had reconvened at 23:00 after tensions erupted earlier, with the SDLP and Alliance complaining they had been given too little time to scrutinise the proposals.

The nature of decision-making at Stormont sees five parties sharing power in a mandatory coalition – and their views have differed greatly at times during the pandemic.

It appears the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin reached a compromise over the timing of school closures – for now – and whether to apply hospitality measures throughout Northern Ireland.

Advice from health officials was that NI-wide restrictions had to be imposed by Friday.

The executive seems to have listened to to that recommendation, but some are asking why the parties laboured so long over the proposed plan, given the urgency of the situation.

But these are seismic decisions: every step back into what resembles the original lockdown has ramifications.

Assembly members who returned to Stormont on Tuesday night amid whispers of a special sitting were left empty-handed.

They’ll get a chance to raise concerns when the executive formally announces its decisions in the chamber later.

Ministers will face questions about why they appear to have chosen to diverge from some of the health officials’ original advice.

It is understood Sinn Féin wanted schools to be closed for at least four weeks, citing medical evidence, but the DUP had been adamant they should close for no longer than two weeks.

Due to the half-term break, which for many pupils is a week long, most schools will now only have to close for an extra week.

The executive is also understood to have agreed to advise universities and further education colleges to run courses online.

There are new restrictions coming into place for weddings, civil ceremonies and funerals, which will be limited to 25 people from Monday with no receptions permitted, it is understood.

Face coverings will not be obligatory for such ceremonies in places of worship.

It is understood ministers have agreed no additional restrictions will be placed on shops, but there will be “urgent engagement” with the sector about extra measures to prevent further spread of the virus.

‘Stand with you’

In a video on social media while the executive was adjourned in the early hours of Wednesday, First Minister Arlene Foster said the executive would financially support those affected by further restrictions “as best we can”.

“It is critical that we do not have any long-term closures in our schools” as this would affect young people’s life chances, added the DUP leader.

Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill said the executive had given “painstaking consideration” to next steps.

“We will do everything we possibly can to make sure there are protections in place for businesses, workers and families,” she said.

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Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person. The virus that causes COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus.