BALLYMENA is reeling tonight as more details emerge regarding coronavirus local lockdown restrictions including residents being asked to ‘avoid unnecessary travel’ to other areas.
The Executive today decided to introduce a series of localised restrictions ‘to stem the increase in Covid-19 cases and keep people safe’.
The areas covered are: Belfast City Council area; Postcode area BT28; Postcode area BT29; ‘the town of Ballymena and postcode area BT43’.
A Stormont press release said the restrictions are:
‘No mixing of households in private dwellings, with exemptions for: bubbling with one other household; caring responsibilities including childcare; essential maintenance, supported living arrangements; visits required for legal or medical purposes; or marriage or civil partnerships where one partner is terminally ill;
‘No more than six people to gather in a private garden from no more than two households;
‘Anyone living in these areas is asked to avoid unnecessary travel outside the restricted areas;
‘Care homes and hospitals in these areas will be advised to significantly curtail visits as soon as practicable. One member of a family will be permitted a visit once a week while these localised restrictions apply. More frequent visits may be permitted in exceptional circumstances, including palliative care facilities and those receiving end of life care.
‘Medically vulnerable and older people living in these areas are asked to be particularly careful in following the advice on limiting household contacts, social distancing, hand washing and wearing a face covering, given the local levels of Covid-19.’
Anyone living in the areas is asked to follow the restrictions with immediate effect, Stormont officials said on Thursday evening.
Regulations on the restrictions will be introduced next week, making some legally enforceable, they added.
The Executive has also agreed today to set up a new Ministerial-led group to consider compliance and enforcement of the regulations, representing a concerted effort to ensure that everyone follows the letter and spirit of the law.
The localised restrictions will be in place for a minimum of two weeks, after which they will be reviewed.
Postcode areas may be added and removed from the local restrictions as patterns of infection change and further interventions and restrictions can be introduced as necessary.
The restrictions are being applied for postcodes which currently have levels of Covid cases at or above those where local restrictions have been imposed elsewhere in the UK and Ireland, Stormont said.
A number of Belfast Council postcodes fall into this category. The Executive has decided to apply restrictions across the entire Belfast City council boundaries, reflecting the level of population movement across the city, including by public transport.
The Executive says it had the option of applying restrictions to the whole of Northern Ireland, however, there is a marked variation in the incidence of cases in different localities.
The press release said it is hoped that a geographically targeted approach will help create a clear incentive for widespread compliance with public health advice.
First Minister Arlene Foster said: “We have seen a progressive rise in Covid-19 cases in Northern Ireland since early July, and recently there has been a further and deeply worrying acceleration.
“We know only too well the damage this virus can do, particularly to vulnerable people in our community. Doing nothing in the current circumstances would be indefensible.
“I recognise the anxiety these measures may cause in the affected districts. We will work closely with our local government partners to ensure these areas get all the support they need to get their Covid rates down and the restrictions lifted.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “This is about protecting our citizens and saving lives. The increase in Covid-19 cases in our community in recent weeks should be a wake-up call to everyone.
“I would assure everyone living in the districts affected by restrictions that we have thought long and hard before taking this decision.
“I would also emphasise that we all have to keep playing our part and follow public health advice, whether we live in these areas or not. The restrictions will be kept under active review and other districts can be urgently added to the list if required.”
Health Minister Robin Swann, who is a North Antrim MLA and has a constituency office in Ballymena, said: “I welcome this collective action by the Executive today.
“This is about limiting contacts between people and stopping the spread of the virus. Concrete action now can help us avoid more drastic restrictions down the line.
“There must be no complacency in the areas that are not affected by restrictions this time around. Covid-19 rates of infection can increase rapidly and with catastrophic consequences. We all have to maintain social distancing, keep washing our hands and wear face coverings when required. We all have to keep doing this to get through it.”
The Executive has also set an indicative date of September 21 for the opening of wet pubs, providing circumstances permit and with strict adherence to guidance, regulation and appropriate enforcement.
Junior Ministers Lyons and Kearney met with the hospitality sector earlier in the week to discuss the opening of bars. Officials with bring forward proposals to a future Executive meeting to enable those who are acting responsibly to open alongside a workable enforcement regime.
The Executive also agreed that soft play areas can open on 14 September in line with the indicative date. Soft play area providers will need to comply with Regulations including preparing risk assessments. Guidance for the sector will soon be published on www.nidirect.gov.uk/coronavirus
The press release added: ‘It is recognised that there will be people living on the fringes of the areas with restrictions. That is unavoidable. Additional work to provide any necessary clarity on the boundaries will be taken forward in line with development of the regulations. In the interim, anyone in any doubt as to whether they are covered by the restrictions is asked to follow them.’
In another development on Thursday night the Current R Number estimate was revealed.
The Department of Health continues to publish the Covid-19 reproduction number on a weekly basis.
The current estimate of R is 0.3 – 1.4
Average number of new positive tests per day last 7 days – 91.3
7 day incidence based on new positive tests: 33.6 / 100k population
14 day incidence based on new positive tests: 58.3 / 100k population
7 day average of total tests (pillar 1 and 2) which are positive – 1.92%
First COVID +ve hospital admission in last week – 7
7 day average number COVID occupied hospital beds – 16.4
Commenting on the figures the Chief Scientific Adviser Prof. Ian Young said: “Given the current estimate for R is lower than it has been in previous weeks it might be assumed that the position in Northern Ireland is improving, however this is not case. We’ve consistently said there are a range of indicators which need to be taken into account to assess the true position.”
“When we look at these indicators for the last week we see there has been a general increase. The 7 day rolling average for new cases has increased, as has test positivity. If we look back to July, less than one test in 200 was positive.
“This has steadily been increasing and we’re now seeing about one positive case for every 50 tests. In addition, R remains at around 1.2 for new COVID cases. It is clear overall that the epidemic continues to increase and that in particular there is an increase in community transmission.
“Fortunately hospital admissions have remained stable and are at a relatively low level. However we are seeing an increase in the percentage of cases in the over 60s group and this is could be cause for concern.
“This group is at most risk of severe illness and hospitalisation and if we continue as we are unabated, it is inevitable that we will continue to see more cases in our older population and that will translate to more hospital admissions and in due course more deaths.
“While we are also seeing some regional variations we must bear in mind that there is no part of Northern Ireland where the virus doesn’t exist.”
Prof. Young added: “Therefore regardless of your age or where you live, the public health advice applies to us all.”