Northern Ireland will enter a six-week lockdown on Boxing Day amid rising Covid-19 infections and severe pressure on hospitals.

The new restrictions, due to come into force at 00.01 am on December 26, will include the shutting off all non-essential shops as well the closure of pubs, bars and restaurants apart from takeaway services.

The first week of the new lockdown will also see even stricter measures, with all sporting activity to be banned and essential shops told to close at 8pm.

A woman wearing a face mask leaves a shop in Belfast city centre as businesses across Northern Ireland reopen their doors following a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown aimed at stemming the spread of coronavirus.
Image:Northern Ireland will enter a six-week lockdown on Boxing Day

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that the lockdown, agreed by Northern Ireland’s Executive on Thursday, would be reviewed after four weeks.

“The situation in terms of Covid is quite dire and we saw images this week that we never want to see repeated again,” Ms O’Neill said, as she referred to patients being treated in car parks this week at over-capacity hospitals.

“It’s very clear from the positive cases that we’re seeing every day that an urgent intervention was required.”

She promised that financial support would be put in place to support businesses through the fresh lockdown, while she confirmed that people would still be able to form “Christmas bubbles” with other households over the festive period.

Ambulances at the entrance to the emergency department with a number of the vehicle with patients awaiting to be admitted, at Antrim Area Hospital, Co Antrim in Northern Ireland, as the emergency department and hospital is currently at full capacity.
Image:Hospitals in Northern Ireland are running at over capacity

Northern Ireland ministers had met on Thursday afternoon to discuss proposals for new restrictions as coronavirus cases numbers continue to increase off the back of recent two-week “circuit break” measures.

Between November 27 and December 10, all pubs, bars, restaurants and non-essential shops were closed in Northern Ireland, with gyms and swimming pools also shut.

However, Northern Ireland’s hospitals have remained under pressure since the end of that two-week period.

On Thursday, it was announced a further 12 people with Covid-19 had died in Northern Ireland, bringing the total number of fatalities in the pandemic to 1,154.

Another 656 new cases of the virus were also recorded, with 460 Covid-19 positive patients in hospitals, including 32 in intensive care.

The hospital occupancy rate was 104%.

On Tuesday, queues of ambulances were witnessed at accident and emergency departments across Northern Ireland as patients were treated in car parks due to a lack of capacity inside the hospitals.

At one point, 17 ambulances containing patients were lined up outside Antrim Area Hospital.

Paramedics from the Republic of Ireland are set to help their Northern Ireland counterparts this weekend.

Michael Bloomfield, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS), said the move was “relatively unusual” and reflects the pressure they are under.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Wales will move to its highest tier of restrictions – known as “level 4” and equivalent to a lockdown – for an initial three-week period on 28 December.