Localised coronavirus restrictions are to be introduced in Belfast and Ballymena, Northern Ireland’s leaders have announced.
The measures are designed to limit social interaction between households amid soaring Covid-19 infection rates in those areas.
First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill announced the steps at their first joint press conference since the row over Ms O’Neill’s attendance at an IRA veteran’s funeral – an event that saw hundreds gather on the streets amid strict regulations on the size of public gatherings.
The joint media briefings resumed a day after Ms O’Neill expressed regret at the Bobby Storey funeral controversy and admitted it had undermined the executive’s public heath messaging.
Under the localised measures, members from two or more households will not be able to meet in private dwellings, with a number of limited exceptions, including childcare provision and households that have formed a social bubble with another.
No more than six people, from no more than two households, will be permitted to meet in private gardens.
The restrictions will be in place for a minimum of two weeks.
At the same executive meeting, ministers also decided that pubs that do not serve food can provisionally aim to reopen on September 21.
Pubs that do serve food were able to reopen at the start of July.
Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill denied they were sending out mixed messages, by beefing up some restrictions at the same time as loosening others.
They insisted there was a particular concern about the spread of the virus within households, while the reopening of “wet” pubs would be accompanied by robust measures to limit social interaction.
The localised restrictions, which will come into effect next week, cover the Belfast City Council area and the BT28 and BT29 postcodes, which take in Crumlin and parts of Lisburn.
They also cover Ballymena and the BT43 postcode area to the north of the town.
Anyone living in the impacted areas is asked to avoid unnecessary travel outside of them.
Care home and hospital visits will also be limited in the affected areas.
Mrs Foster said in the areas impacted the case numbers were double or treble Northern Ireland’s average.
She said there was a need to “push down on the rising curve of infection”.
“It is evident that there are specific geographical regions which have concerning levels of community transmission,” said Mrs Foster.
The DUP leader added: “At the moment, the villain is not business, where customers’ behaviours are regulated.
“It is in the home, in our homes, it is the house party, it is the dinner party, it is the few people coming around for drinks or coffee.
“So complacency is our enemy and it cost lives and therefore today it is important that we say to you that compliance is all important.”
She said a new ministerial-led group had been set up to consider issues around compliance and enforcement of the regulations.
Ms O’Neill began her remarks by restating her regret at the funeral fall-out.
“I do accept to the public messaging about the pandemic has been undermined by the controversy over the last number of months,” she said.
“It was never my intention that that would happen, but it did, and I regret that.
“So I want to rebuild trust with the public.”
The Sinn Fein vice president said the executive needed to take action on infection “hotspots”.
“The picture at present is very concerning,” she said.
“The R number (number of people an infected person passes the virus to) has been consistently above one for a number of weeks, there’s been a progressive rise in Covid-19 cases since early July and, in recent weeks, we have seen a further sharp increase.”
The executive’s chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said he hoped a full lockdown could be avoided.
“I do not envisage going again into a full lock time other than as a complete last resort, I do not expect it to happen,” he said.
“There are also medical and scientific advances continually under way, we push forwards in terms of vaccine development, we have better treatments in terms of the most severely ill patients, which can reduce the risk of death by at least one third, and there are new testing strategies and technologies on the horizon with the potential to make a really substantial difference in how we can manage this situation as we go into autumn and winter.”
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