Northern Ireland to shut restaurants and suspend school in strictest UK lockdown

PAUL FAITH / AFP

Northern Ireland is to impose the strictest COVID-19 restrictions seen in the UK since early summer, closing schools for two weeks and shuttering restaurants for four.

It has become one of Europe's biggest COVID-19 hotspots in recent weeks, with First Minister Arlene Foster describing the situation as becoming more grave by the hour.

"We do not take this step lightly ... the COVID transmission rates must be turned down or we will be in a very difficult place very soon indeed," she told the regional parliament after announcing the measures.

"We are very determined that this will be a time-limited intervention. They will not continue beyond the four weeks."

The closure will affect the entire hospitality sector, with the exception of takeaway and delivery services, and double the length of the annual October school break from one week to two.

Under the measures, retail will remain open, but "close contact services" such as hairdressers and beauticians will be closed.

People will be advised to avoid all unnecessary travel and work from home, while universities will be asked to teach remotely as far as possible.

The UK as a whole has been reporting record numbers of daily infections, and the highest number of deaths since early summer.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced a new tiered system of restrictions for England on Monday, with Liverpool and the surrounding Merseyside region placed in the highest level.

The government of the Irish Republic will consider whether to respond to the new measures and impose additional restrictions in areas close to the open Northern Ireland border where infection levels are also very high, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said earlier on Wednesday.

Ireland has had stricter restrictions in place since last week, with all indoor restaurant dining and non-essential travel banned, but Varadkar said more measures may be needed.

Northern Ireland's health department reported 863 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday and seven more deaths, meaning it has had 334 cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days. 

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