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BELFAST/DUBLIN (Reuters) – Northern Ireland announced the strictest COVID-19 restrictions seen in the United Kingdom since early summer on Wednesday, closing schools for two weeks, restaurants for four weeks and leading Ireland to respond by tightening curbs in bordering counties.
The British-ruled region of Northern Ireland has become one of Europe’s biggest COVID-19 hotspots in recent weeks. Its health minister described the situation last Friday as becoming graver by the hour.
The health department reported a record amount of daily cases on Wednesday with 1,217 new infections bringing the number of cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days to 356. Four more deaths were also announced.
“We do not take this step lightly … the COVID transmission rates must be turned down or we will be in a very difficult place very soon indeed,” First Minister Arlene Foster told the regional parliament.
The closure will affect the entire hospitality sector, except takeaway and delivery services, and double the length of the October school break from one week to two.
Under the measures, retail will remain open, but “close contact services” such as hairdressers and beauticians will be closed.
People will be advised to avoid unnecessary travel and work from home, while universities will be asked to teach remotely as far as possible.
The United Kingdom as a whole has been reporting record numbers of daily infections and the highest number of deaths since early summer.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson introduced a new tiered system of restrictions for England on Monday, with Liverpool and the surrounding Merseyside region in the highest level.
The government of the Irish Republic moved three counties on the open border with Northern Ireland – Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan – to Level 4 of its five-step framework, banning all non-essential retail in the areas with the country’s highest infection rates.
Ireland has had stricter restrictions in place since last week, with all indoor restaurant dining and non-essential travel banned and while it added a ban on almost all visits to homes across the country on Wednesday, schools remain open everywhere.
Ireland, which has almost three times the population of Northern Ireland, also reported its highest number of cases in a single day on Wednesday – 1,012.
Additional reporting and writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Giles Elgood and Lisa Shumaker