A late-night meeting of the Stormont executive has been temporarily adjourned amid mounting expectation Northern Ireland may be facing the prospect of a circuit-break lockdown.
The meeting got under way just after 9.30pm for talks on how to tackle spiralling Covid-19 infection rates in the region.
A paper from Health Minister Robin Swann has warned that the virus will continue to spread if both schools and the hospitality sector remain open.
The Department of Health #COVID19 dashboard has been updated with latest data.
863 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. Four deaths have been reported within the past 24 hours, three have been reported outside this period.https://t.co/YN16dmGzhvpic.twitter.com/vf1xXMko00
— Department of Health (@healthdpt) October 13, 2020
Discussions were adjourned shortly afterwards, after SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon asked for time to study the recommendations.
The meeting is due to resume later on Tuesday.
If ministers agree to introduce fresh restrictions in the region, potentially for a four-week period, there is the prospect of a late-night sitting of the Stormont Assembly so MLAs can be briefed on the measures.
The weekly meeting of the powersharing administration, scheduled for Thursday, was brought forward on Tuesday in an indication of the urgency of the situation.
It is understood the two main parties in the coalition, the DUP and Sinn Fein, have been at odds on how long schools should close during any period of lockdown.
A compromise position may see schools close for a fortnight – a period that would include the Halloween mid-term break.
Earlier on Tuesday, First Minister Arlene Foster said the decisions to be made were not easy.
“Some people have said it is about health versus wealth, I think that is a completely false analysis… poverty kills and unemployment kills as well,” she said.
“Therefore it is a balancing act between making sure that we deal with Covid-19, but that we also try and protect our economy, protect our society as we know it and indeed family life as we know it.
“These are huge decisions, none of them are easy.”
A further seven deaths with Covid-19 and another 863 cases were reported by the Department of Health on Tuesday.
Some 6,286 new positive cases of the virus have been detected in the last seven days, bringing the total number of cases in the region to 21,898.
— Public Health Agency (@publichealthni) October 12, 2020
There are currently 150 patients in hospitals with Covid-19, including 23 in intensive care.
On Tuesday it also emerged that an intensive care unit at Northern Ireland’s Nightingale hospital has been reopened in response to escalating Covid admissions in Belfast.
The facility is not yet being stood up on a region-wide basis, but will be accepting Covid-19 patients being treated within the Belfast Trust area.
The Belfast Trust has also cancelled 105 planned surgeries at Belfast City Hospital and Musgrave Park Hospital for the next two weeks, to free up staff to respond to the worsening coronavirus situation.
Derry City and Strabane Council area remains the worst hit in Northern Ireland, with a case incidence rate of 970 per 100,000 people over the last seven days.
The area is currently subject to tighter Covid-19 regulations than the rest of the region.
The rate in the north west is more than double the next highest rate, which is 462 per 100,000 in Belfast.
Mid Ulster now has a rate of 401, while the Newry, Mourne and Down Council area has a prevalence of 315 per 100,000.
Mid and East Antrim remain the areas with the lowest infection rate, at 95 per 100,000.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young have already recommended a country-wide lockdown lasting four to six weeks.
The aim is to reduce the reproduction rate of the virus to below one additional infection for every person diagnosed.
Ministers have been warned that it is not considered likely that the R rate can be less than one with both schools and hospitality open.
The senior health officials have urged school closures for a period within the lockdown, though not necessarily for the entirety of it.
They have said action needs to be taken within days and have identified the six-week lockdown as providing the best chance of Northern Ireland reaching Christmas without the need for another.
Mrs Foster indicated on Monday that she was not in favour of closing schools.