NI Executive holds emergency meeting amid fears over Covid-19 strain

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The Northern Ireland Executive is holding an emergency meeting to discuss coronavirus restrictions.

It comes after four of the five power-sharing parties called for a meeting of the Executive to discuss the new strain of Covid-19 found in England.

Government ministers from Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party and the SDLP issued a joint request for an Executive meeting to be held on Sunday.

The Executive’s virtual meeting got under way at 9pm.

It is understood Executive ministers have been debating amending the 1967 Public Health Act to temporarily ban travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein has voiced support for the move but there are practical issues around how quickly such a ban could be introduced, given the time it would likely take for the Department of Health to draw up regulations to bring it into effect.

The DUP position is that UK internal travel is already banned from Tier 4 areas in England, so there is no need for added Stormont legislation to enforce that.

The party believes the responsibility for stopping flights and ferries within the UK is an issue for the UK Government and has also raised concern that Stormont could leave itself open to compensation liabilities if it was to legislate on the issue.

It is understood Health Department officials have been asked to undertake further work to examine issues around restricting travel into Northern Ireland.

The emergency meeting is continuing, with ministers discussing the region’s Christmas bubbling arrangements.

Under current plans, up to three households will be allowed to congregate together in “social bubbles” between December 23 and 27, unlike the rest of the UK.

In a letter seen by the PA news agency, Minister for Justice Naomi Long, Minister for Finance Conor Murphy and Minister for Infrastructure Nichola Mallon raised concerns about the more infectious coronavirus variant found in England.

“The speed and scale of the virus transmission spread and the fact that it is so fast-moving is a cause for alarm to us all,” the parties said in a joint letter.

“While our Executive met last Thursday and moved to take decisions ahead of others, it would be prudent for the full Executive to be briefed by the Minister of Health and the chief medical officer and chief scientific officer at the earliest opportunity.

“We must satisfy ourselves that our regulations and restrictions over the Christmas period and those agreed over the coming six-week period are sufficiently robust enough to safeguard public health in the context of these latest developments.”

It is also understood the Assembly will be recalled on Monday to allow Minister for Education Peter Weir to face questions about schools reopening.

Mr Weir confirmed on Friday that all schools and education settings would reopen in the first week of January, however he is facing mounting calls to review the decision.

Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, who is chair of the education committee, called for the Assembly to sit this week.

He tweeted on Sunday: “It is my understanding that the Education Minister has accepted the need to give a statement on the safety of and contingency for school restart, transfer tests and examinations in January at the Assembly tomorrow. Speaker confirmation pending.”

Ms O’Neill said on Saturday: “Christmas bubbling arrangements are in place for those who feel they need to come together.

“If you must avail of them, then please consider doing so for one day only, Christmas Day.

“Keep your bubble as small as possible and meet for the shortest amount of time you can.

“We are clearly very worried about the Covid-19 situation that is unfolding. The speed at which this variant strain of the virus is spreading is deeply concerning.”

On Sunday, Northern Ireland’s Department of Health confirmed another 13 people with Covid-19 had died in a 24-hour period, bringing the death toll to 1,196.

A further 505 new cases of the virus were also reported in the region.

There were 421 patients with Covid-19 in hospitals, including 30 in ICU.

The Northern Ireland Executive decided last week to impose a six-week lockdown from December 26.

The first week of the measures will see the toughest lockdown yet in Northern Ireland, with a form of curfew in operation from 8pm, shops closed from that time and all indoor and outdoor gatherings prohibited until 6am.

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