Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill cancel St Patrick’s trip to Washington DC

Stormont leaders have cancelled a St Patrick’s trip to Washington DC amid the coronavirus outbreak.

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill are to remain in Northern Ireland to focus on efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Their announcement comes as a call centre in Belfast was forced to close for a deep clean after a staff member contracted the virus.

A total of 12 people are currently being treated for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.

The leaders had already cancelled the New York leg of their itinerary in the United States.

They will also now miss a series of engagements in the US capital, including the traditional St Patrick’s reception with President Donald Trump in the White House on Thursday.

On Monday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also cancelled plans for the New York leg of his St Patrick’s itinerary, but still intends to travel to Washington at this stage.

Mrs Foster tweeted: “The Deputy First Minister & I have decided not to travel to Washington for the St Patrick’s Day receptions. Whilst it is an enormous opportunity to showcase Northern Ireland in DC, our priority is dealing with the spread of Coronavirus. We will attend the cobra meeting tomorrow.”

Ms O’Neill said: “We remain in containment stage, however as leaders of the Executive we have decided to suspend our travel to the United States this week since our full attention is on civil contingency planning around the coronavirus outbreak and protecting public health.

“We are fully engaged in the Cobra meetings alongside England, Scotland and Wales in assessing the response to the outbreak on advice from our chief medical officer.

“There is all-Ireland co-ordination between health and medical professionals on a daily basis also. I am in regular contact with Tanaiste Simon Coveney and health ministers north and south are also working closely.

The Halifax call centre at Belfast Gasworks
The Halifax call centre at Belfast Gasworks

“It is regrettable that we must suspend our travel to the US to meet with political leaders and potential investors, but it is necessary.

“We were going to deliver the message that the north is open for business and is a great place to invest.”

Around 1,000 people work at the virus-impacted Halifax call centre in the Gasworks area of Belfast city centre.

It is understood staff have been asked to self-isolate, work from home or from a contingency site.

Lloyds Banking Group, which owns Halifax, said: “The Belfast Gasworks building has been temporarily closed to allow for the appropriate areas of the site to be cleaned, after a colleague based there was diagnosed with Covid-19.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

“Our priority is the wellbeing of the individual, as well as the colleagues and visitors to the building. We’re closely monitoring the developing situation and continue to follow official guidelines.”

Two schools in Co Armagh are already closed for deep cleaning after a young person was diagnosed with Covid-19.

Newtownhamilton High School and primary school share the same site in Co Armagh and are expected to reopen next week.

Several sports clubs have also had to take precautionary steps after individual members tested positively.

The St Patrick’s Day festivities in Belfast are among events which have been axed amid efforts to contain the spread of the virus.

On Monday, Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann warned that between 50% and 80% of the population could ultimately contract the coronavirus in a worst-case scenario.