Arlene Foster – Draconian measures taken in NI to tackle coronavirus

Draconian measures have been taken in Northern Ireland to stop people from socialising in pubs and keep their distance from others, First Minister Arlene Foster said.

She has faced a dispute with her partner in devolved Government, Michelle O’Neill, over when to order schoolchildren to stay at home.

Around 3,000 tourism companies could go out of business due to recession sparked by coronavirus, Stormont’s economy minister has warned.

Hoteliers urged to close have demanded a Government rescue package to help around 65,000 workers.

Mrs Foster said the onus was on Westminster to stump up more cash.

She added: “These are quite draconian measures that have been announced today.

“We are asking people to social distance in their own homes, to stop socialising in pubs and clubs.

“We need to also think of those people who work in pubs and clubs and provide a support mechanism for them as well.”

Bookings via one popular hotels website have fallen 80%, and the landmark Titanic Belfast visitor centre has seen visitor numbers halve.

Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said: “The hospitality sector across Northern Ireland will suffer overwhelming and immediate pain in a short period of time.”

Mrs Foster said she was very concerned about the impact on small businesses like the hospitality trade and travel agencies, which are suffering a shutdown in people booking holidays.

She added: “There are many sectors we will try and support but we will need to get funding from Westminster to make sure that we can deliver that support.”

Lawyers have sharply criticised the decision to keep courts open – one branded them crowded petri dishes for the spread of disease.

Seven new Covid-19 cases were confirmed in Northern Ireland on Monday, bringing the overall tally to 52.

Health Minister Robin Swann said 40 new ventilators to keep people who are seriously ill alive had been ordered, and urged local manufacturers to help them produce more.

Mr Swann said: “Be under no illusion what is coming down the road at us.”

Non-essential medical procedures are to be postponed as the NHS ramps up its response to the virus.

Mr Swann added: “We will come to a point where we won’t be using operating theatres.

“We will be able to use the ventilator points there to ventilate patients when we get to that stage.”

Stormont’s education minister has insisted his stance on keeping schools open is not political, and is in line with expert medical advice.

Peter Weir was challenged during a sitting of the Assembly as to why schools, colleges and childcare facilities in Northern Ireland remain open, when in the Irish Republic they were all closed as part of efforts to delay the spread of the virus.

Despite the Stormont authorities still holding off on announcing closures – a move they say will be required eventually – several schools have already shut their doors over Covid-19 fears, including 10 schools for children with special needs in Belfast.

St Dominic’s Grammar School, a large mainstream school for girls in Belfast, has closed to pupils to facilitate a deep clean after one of its students tested positive for Covid-19.

A legal challenge against Mr Weir’s stance on closures, taken by a Co Armagh mother whose daughter has an underlying health condition, is due to be heard at the High Court in Belfast on Wednesday.

Stormont ministers met on Monday night with Mrs O’Neill vowing to make the case for school closures.

She said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to ask people to self-isolate confirmed the “absolute need” for schools to close.