A repeated cycle of lockdowns and spikes in coronavirus cases is “not feasible”, Stormont’s health minister has said.
Robin Swann said he hopes the planned series of restrictions over the next four weeks will be “long and hard enough” to reduce the R rate of the virus to below one.
The minister said the key would be for people to continue to adhere to basic infection control measures once the four weeks was over.
“If we can re-energise the people of Northern Ireland to re-engage with our messaging and keep that behaviour going for as long as possible, it keeps the rate of infection as low as possible for as long as possible and that’s what helps us in the health service and prevents the further spread of Covid-19,” he told a Stormont press conference.
The R rate is currently estimated at between 1.5 and 1.6.
Earlier, Northern Ireland recorded 1,217 new cases of Covid-19 in 24 hours, a new daily record for the region, along with four further coronavirus-linked deaths.
Mr Swann said a month ago there was 129 cases, and 34 the month before that.
Chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said case numbers were rising in a “sustained and dramatic” way, adding that a “serious intervention” was required to stop the health service being “overwhelmed”.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride had a blunt message for those who were not taking the virus seriously: “If you still think the threat has been exaggerated, it’s time to wake up.”
Mr Swann also announced on Wednesday that Northern Ireland’s Nightingale region-wide Covid-19 hospital, located at Belfast City Hospital, is to become fully operational again.
The region is to enter a period of intensified coronavirus restrictions after the Stormont executive announced closures of schools, pubs and restaurants.
Pubs and restaurants will close for four weeks, with the exception of takeaways and deliveries, while schools will close on Monday for two weeks, one of which will cover the half-term break.
The measures do not amount to a full-scale lockdown similar to that imposed during the first wave of the virus, but they mark a significant ramping up of the administration’s response to spiralling infection rates.
Mr Swann stressed that Northern Ireland had the chance of a better Christmas – a festive season where “hope has not been crushed” – if the public complied with the new regulations.
Under the new restrictions, retail outlets will remain open, as will gyms for individual training.
Churches will also remain open. It is understood a 25-person limit will be placed on funerals and weddings, but wedding receptions are prohibited.
People should work from home unless unable to do so, and are urged not to take unnecessary journeys.
Indoor sporting activities are not allowed and outdoor contact sports will be limited to elite athletes.
Off-licences will be required to shut at 8pm.
Close contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, must stop.
Services that deliver health interventions and therapeutics will be allowed to continue.
Childcare facilities and creches will remain open.
The measures come into force at 6pm on Friday.
The Executive has agreed a range of significant time-bound interventions to curb the spread of #COVID19 in Northern Ireland.
More information ⬇️https://t.co/fSikTn6UFJ
— NI Executive (@niexecutive) October 14, 2020
First Minister Arlene Foster announced the restrictions at a special sitting of the Assembly on Wednesday.
She said the rising Covid-19 figures in Northern Ireland were of “grave concern”.
“We fully appreciate that this will be difficult and worrying news for a lot of people,” she told MLAs.
“The executive has taken this decision because it is necessary, and we discussed the impacts in great detail. We do not take this step lightly.”
Mrs Foster said the Executive hoped the restrictions would have two impacts.
“First, on the Covid transmission rates which must be turned down now, or we will be in a very difficult place very soon indeed,” she said.
“Second, we believe it marks a point where everyone, each and every one of us, can take stock and go back to the social distancing messaging. That is vitally important.”
The restrictions were agreed after a stop-start meeting of the Stormont Executive that extended past midnight and into Wednesday morning.
Mrs Foster insisted the restrictions would not last any longer than four weeks.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was unable to attend the sitting of the Assembly as she is self-isolating after a family member tested positive for Covid-19.
Her Sinn Fein colleague and Stormont finance minister Conor Murphy said the escalating infection rates leave Northern Ireland facing a “hugely worrying situation” that requires “prompt action”.
“In the first instance, our duty is to protect lives and to protect the health of the population,” he said.
“And that’s why, even though these are difficult decisions, even though we’re very conscious of the impact they have on society, the Executive has agreed a series of measures to take.”
The current restrictions on household mixing are to remain. That means no mixing of households in private dwellings, with exceptions including those joined in social bubbles, and gatherings in the gardens of private dwellings limited to six people from no more than two households.
The 1,217 daily case tally is not directly comparable to the first wave of the pandemic, as much fewer tests were being carried out in that period.
However, it is the highest total recorded since the testing regime was expanded in Northern Ireland to take in community settings.
A total of 6,693 new positive cases of the virus have been detected in the last seven days, bringing the total number of cases in the region to 23,115.
There are currently 164 patients in hospitals with Covid-19, including 24 in intensive care.
The Derry and Strabane Council area, which has been experiencing the highest infection rate in the UK and Ireland, now has a seven-day average of 992 cases per 100,000 people.
The area is already subject to additional localised restrictions.