NI Executive will reconsider relaxing Christmas restrictions between December 23 and 27 - Mid and East Antrim major infection concerns as rate more than doubles in just over two weeks - Fewer than 4,000 people have received first dose of Covid-19 vaccine in NI so far

The Northern Ireland Executive will reconsider the relaxing of restrictions for Christmas between December 23 and 27 when it meets on Thursday.

For more details on this story and live coverage of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland, please scroll down.

The number of infections continues to rise in Northern Ireland. (Photo: Pacemaker Press)

LIVE UPDATES: NI Executive will reconsider Christmas relaxations when it meets on Thursday

Last updated: Tuesday, 15 December, 2020, 18:29

  • NI Executive will reconsider Christmas relaxations on Thursday
  • Fears newly discovered strain of Covid-19 on way to Northern Ireland
  • Christmas outcome could result in delay of life-saving operations
  • Redundancies in NI double in 2020 because of pandemic

NI Executive will reconsider Christmas relaxations when it meets on Thursday

Parliament Buildings, Stormont.

The Northern Ireland Executive will reconsider its decision to relax Covid-19 restrictions over Christmas when it meets on Thursday.

First Minister, Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill were both involved in an urgent telephone call with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, and the First Minister for Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon and the First Minister for Wales, Mark Drakeford. 

Following the meeting with Michael Gove, a spokeswoman for First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “Following this evening’s call with counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales, ministers will discuss the current situation with medical and scientific advisers.

“It is expected that an update will be brought to the Executive on Thursday.”

The current restriction measures are set to be relaxed between December 23 and 27.

It was agreed by all four administrations that people in the UK would be permitted to travel where they liked during this time.

It was also agreed that up to three separate households would be permitted to meet-up indoors, in place of worship and outdoor public spaces.

Covid-19 infections continue to rise in Northern Ireland.

In particular, there are concerns over the spread of the virus in Mid and East Antrim council area where the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 of the population is no more than 300.

The Mid and East Antrim council area reported 141.4 positive cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 of the population when, like the rest of Northern Ireland, it entered into a two week circuit breaker lockdown on November 27.

The Mid and East Antrim council area has also recorded 16 Covid-19 related deaths since November 27.

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill to join emergency Christmas Covid-19 restrictions call with Michael Gove, Nichola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford

The First Minister, Arlene Foster, and deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, will take part in an emergency call concerning a possible need to review the relaxation of restrictions for Christmas.

The call with the First Ministers comes amid pressure on the Government to reconsider the relaxation of the restrictions amid rising Covid-19 cases.

It is believed that one of the issues that we could see some movement on is how far people will be permitted to travel for Christmas.

Experts have been saying for weeks how an increase in the number of people moving from one part of the UK to another will result in a significant rise in cases, hospital admissions and deaths.

The call between Michael Gove and the leaders of the devolved administrations is understood to be scheduled for 5pm.

Stormont must reverse decision allowing household mixing declares BMJ & HSJ

Parliament Buildings, Stormont.

The Northern Ireland Executive and the administrations in England, Scotland and Wales must all reverse the decision to allow up to three separate households to meet and mix indoors from December 23 to 27, according to the United Kingdom’s two most respected and revered medical journals.

In a rare joint editorial, the British Medical Journal and Health Service Journal called for the “rash” decision to relax social distancing measures over the festive period to be scrapped.

They said that the Government “is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives”.

We have asked the Department of Health in Northern Ireland if it has a response to what both the BMJ and HSJ published today - we also asked the DoH if it was considering recommending a review of relaxation of Covid-19 restriction measures around Christmas time to the Northern Ireland Executive.

London mayor Sadiq Khan also expressed concern about the five-day “Christmas window” which would allow three households to mingle between December 23-27.

The joint editorial warning, authored by HSJ editor Alastair McLellan and BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee said: “When Government devised the current plans to allow household mixing over Christmas it had assumed the Covid-19 demand on the NHS would be decreasing.

“But it is not, it is rising, and the emergence of a new strain of the virus has introduced further potential jeopardy.

“Members of the public can and should mitigate the impact of the third wave by being as careful as possible over the next few months. But many will see the lifting of restrictions over Christmas as permission to drop their guard.

“The Government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn.

“It should now reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing and instead extend the tiers over the five-day Christmas period in order to bring numbers down in the advance of a likely third wave.”

The relaxation of regulations looms after the Government is putting London, much of Essex and part of Hertfordshire under the strictest Tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay said “all things were kept under review” as he urged people to show restraint at Christmas.

Mr Khan told Sky News: “I heard the Government say yesterday they haven’t ruled out further changes, I would encourage the Government to look at their rules over Christmas.

“What I say to the Government is: I’m not sure you’ve got it right, in fact, I’m sure you haven’t got it right in relation to the relaxations over Christmas.”

The London mayor denied he was adopting a “Grinch” approach to Christmas.

He added: “You’re not being Grinch at all. I think what you’re doing is following the science.

“And actually what we’ve seen across the Europe, and across the world, is those countries that are more effective at dealing with this virus having shorter more restrictive measures that help health and wealth.

“So look at Germany and the Netherlands; they’re not for relaxing the rules over Christmas allowing three households to mix with unlimited numbers.”

Mr Barclay said people need to “do the minimum” if they visit family over Christmas.

Asked if plans for the easing of Covid-19 restrictions over the festive period were being reviewed, Mr Barclay told Sky News: “All things are always kept under review.

“There is a balance to be struck that many families have not seen each other all year. It is important for people’s wellbeing, for their mental health. We don’t want to criminalise people for coming together as family over Christmas.

“But, it is important that people do the minimum that is possible. So, people will be making their own judgments.”

Mr Barclay insisted the easing of restrictions over Christmas was not a “tier zero” situation.

He said: “The position is not that we are scrapping the tiering system for five days – that we are letting people loose.

“What we are saying is, within the family three households can come together. That’s the limit of the flexibility that is being offered.

“I think it’s been mischaracterised as, almost, a tier zero, that we are scrapping restrictions in their entirety. That is not the case.”

The comments come after scientists warned that the easing of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas will cause a spike in infections.

David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy working on Covid-19, said the price of such a relaxation “could well be very high”.

Urging people to think carefully about their plans, he told Times Radio: “Just ask yourself, is there any way in which you can perhaps not have the family get-togethers this year?

“It’s much better not to do it when there’s this kind of virus about.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said higher infections in the South East may be in part due to a newly identified variant of coronavirus which is growing faster than the existing one.

Mr Hancock said people should be “extremely careful” about who they mix with in the run-up to Christmas if they are planning to see elderly relatives over the festive period.

Downing Street insisted there were no plans to change the “Christmas bubble” policy despite the fears.

The move came as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was demanding that local councils kept schools open and Government scientists were investigating the impact of the new strain of coronavirus.

Asked if schools should be kept open in England, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman told BBC Radio 4’s today programme: “I do believe it’s the right thing to do, rather than taking very short-term decisions to close…

“Arranging child care at short notice – we could be taking doctors, nurses off shift, out of vaccination clinics. Inadvertently shooting ourselves in the foot.

“It’s a difficult balance to get right.

“We need clarity, consistency, not last-minute decisions.”

Education Minister outlines plan for exams in 2021

Education Minister, Peter Weir.

The Education Minister, Peter Weir, has outlined a plan for the way in which GCSEs, AS and A levels will be graded in 2021.

Amongst the changes listed by Minister Weir were “more generous grading” and “additional support sheets” for students sitting GCSE Mathematics in January and June 2021.

Other changes include:

- the opportunity for students to omit units of assessment at GCSE AS and A2;

- more generous grading across all qualifications;

- significant reductions in the content which will be assessed;

- support materials for GCSE maths; and

- a reserve examination series in early July for A2 candidates who miss exams through illness or self-isolating. 

Speaking in the Assembly, Peter Weir said: “Let me first reiterate that I will not be cancelling examinations. However, I know our students are facing unprecedented disruption to their learning. That’s why our qualifications will be different next year and I will be taking exceptional steps to ensure they are as fair as possible. In recognition of the challenges of studying in such disrupted times, I am taking unprecedented steps to reduce assessment across qualifications.

“Over the last few weeks, my officials have been working closely with CCEA to develop wide ranging measures, which will best support students in these unprecedented times.  In doing so they have engaged with the Education and Training Inspectorate, school leaders, teachers and, importantly, young people to seek their views on the way forward.

“I believe the changes I am announcing will provide young people with the clarity and confidence they need to achieve success. The changes include more generous grading across all qualifications and significant reductions in the content which will be assessed.”

Recognising that young people have experienced varying levels of disruption, the Minister has asked CCEA to explore the possibility of a COVID allowance for young people who have missed a significant number of days face-to-face teaching due to self-isolating.  

Concluding the Minister said: “I am very conscious that our young people have faced incredible challenges as a result of this pandemic. In making these adaptations to examinations, we will ensure that their lives are not defined or held back by the disruption they have experienced in 2020.

“I want to publicly thank each and every teacher, school leader, Governor and all the other vital support staff that work in and around our schools, for their incredible efforts.  They have dealt with a wide range of difficult and exceptional issues. Thanks to their efforts our children have been able to return to school and continue their education.”

Minister Weir also confirmed his department would not be using algorithims to determine grades in 2021.

Minister Weir unveiled the plan in the Assembly in Stormont on Tuesday.

However, MLAs, including the Chair of Stormont Education Committee, Chris Lyttle, MLA (Alliance Party) were given only 10 minutes to familiarise themselves with what was being announced.

Fears newly discovered strain of Covid-19 on way to Northern Ireland

There are major concerns that a newly discovered strain of Covid-19 is only days away from reaching Northern Ireland.

People in every part of the United Kingdom will be permitted to travel home for Christmas from December 23, 2020.

There are fears that the increase in the number of people travelling within the UK will inevitably lead to a newly discovered strain of Covid-19 in the south of England, reaching Northern Ireland sooner than had been anticipated.

“After the launch of the vaccine and resulting optimism in the response to Covid-19, the emergence of this new strain is a worrying development," said DUP MLA Pam Cameron.

"It is key that officials work to establish the impact it could have on the symptoms, severity and speed of spread of the virus in Northern Ireland.

"Whilst there's nothing to suggest that a variant will make the vaccine less effective, it will take time to gain a fuller picture of how this mutation of Coronavirus will affect the local public health response.

“It is crucial that communities in Northern Ireland are able to benefit from early studies of this new strain of Coronavirus,” she added.

Redundancy numbers double in a year

The number of redundancies proposed in Northern Ireland has doubled in a year, according to official statistics - writes Rebecca Black, PA.

There were 10,720 collective redundancies proposed to the end of November.

Of these, 10,000 were since March when the coronavirus pandemic took a grip on the region.

According to figures recorded by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra), the redundancy number is double that of the previous year.

Approximately half of the redundancies were described as being in the manufacturing, and wholesale and retail sectors.

The region’s unemployment rate is now 3.9% – 1.6% up on last year.

Nisra also recorded the first annual decline in employee jobs since September 2012.

Estimates from the Quarterly Employment Survey September 2020 indicate that employee jobs decreased over the year by 4,080 to 775,020 jobs.

Both the manufacturing (down 2,930 jobs) and services (down 2,760 jobs) sectors experienced decreases in employee jobs over the year.

Those furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme are included in employee jobs estimates.

Nisra noted the latest data show that employment and jobs are below pre-pandemic levels, while measures of unemployment are higher than the levels before Covid-19 struck.

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