The Northern Ireland Executive is holding an emergency meeting on Sunday night.
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.
In a tweet, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill confirmed the Executive’s virtual meeting would begin at 9pm.
The Executive will meet at 9pm tonight
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) December 20, 2020
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.
It is understood that Minister for Health Robin Swann, from the UUP, also contacted First Minister Arlene Foster and Ms O’Neill calling for an urgent meeting.
“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.
Given all of the changes happening across these islands today regarding Covid restrictions and with Christmas just days away, Executive needs to meet tomorrow to provide clarity for families, particularly those planning to travel to form bubbles. People need answers urgently.
— Naomi Long MLA (@naomi_long) December 19, 2020
“On this basis we are writing to request that a remote meeting of the Executive Committee is convened today, Sunday 20 December.”
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.”
The first and deputy first ministers and Mr Swann met with chief medical officer Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young on Saturday as rules were tightened in other parts of the UK.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson effectively cancelled Christmas for millions of people across London and south-east England after scientists said a new coronavirus variant is spreading more rapidly.
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.”
Following PM statement, we’ve just finished a useful briefing with NI’s Health Minister, CMO & CSA. This is an evolving situation with the virus mutation. Essential that we all play our part by following the regulations.
— Arlene Foster #We’llMeetAgain (@DUPleader) December 19, 2020
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.
But, 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.
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.