DUBLIN — Northern Ireland will close schools for two weeks and pubs and restaurants for four weeks as coronavirus infection rates surge to levels unseen since the early days of the crisis.
First Minister Arlene Foster told the Northern Ireland Assembly that firms serving sit-down meals would be limited to delivery and takeaway services from Friday.
Schools will shut their doors on Monday for two weeks — one of the first such closure orders across Europe following the Czech Republic’s decision to do the same earlier this week.
The shutdown will affect more than 330,000 students and 1,100 schools across Northern Ireland, which has a population of 1.8 million.
The Republic of Ireland had been pleading for Northern Ireland to adopt sterner measures as its high infection rate has spilled across into Irish border counties.
On Tuesday, Northern Ireland reported seven more virus-related deaths, taking the death toll there to 598. A further 863 cases were detected, taking its infections total to nearly 22,000 — a quarter in the past week alone.
“Transmission rates must be turned down now or we will be in a very difficult place indeed,” Foster told the Belfast assembly. “We will need to exit these arrangements most carefully.”
She emphasized that Northern Ireland was not being placed in “lockdown,” because shops and churches will remain open. But she said too many people were not taking the pandemic seriously, continuing to socialize face to face with neighbors and friends — particularly young people less likely to face fatal consequences.
“The point is they are impacting on our hospitals, our economy and the whole way of life here in Northern Ireland,” she said. “I plead with people today: Please take responsibility for your actions.”
She said Northern Ireland’s so-called R number — the average number of people infected by each person carrying the virus — was near 1.5, meaning the outbreak is spreading rapidly. Foster said it needed to be brought below one.
The Republic of Ireland increased its pandemic countermeasures nationwide last week, shutting pubs and restaurants and even church services. But infection rates continue to rise in most Irish counties, most severely along the border with Northern Ireland.
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