Northern Ireland will enter a six-week lockdown on Boxing Day amid rising COVID-19infections and severe pressure on hospitals.
The new restrictions, due to come into force at 00.01am on 26 December, will include the shutting of 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.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the lockdown, agreed by the Northern Ireland 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.
“I think this will be disappointing to many, I think a lot of people – also – would have expected it,” Ms O’Neill said.
“It’s very clear we needed an urgent intervention.
“I think this is the right decision by the Executive, albeit I accept it will be challenging for many, many people.
“We try to get a balance in all of these things but it’s clear that we needed a longer and deeper intervention.”
Northern Ireland ministers had met on Thursday afternoon to discuss proposals for new restrictions as coronavirus case numbers continue to increase off the back of a recent two-week “circuit break” measures.
Between 27 November and 10 December, 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.
Analysis – New lockdown surprises no one in Northern Ireland
By Stephen Murphy, Ireland correspondent
Robin Swann wasn’t joking. Northern Ireland’s health minister used the words “extreme” and “robust” on Wednesday when describing the set of proposals he would bring to the Executive.
The new six-week lockdown fits the bill.
Essentially it’s a return to the first lockdown of the spring, “deeper and longer” than the last “circuit-breaker” lockdown, according to Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.
And yet, the news has surprised virtually no-one here.
Grabbing a quick lunch in Oliver’s restaurant just a few minutes down the road from Stormont, at least two neighbouring tables were discussing the upcoming lockdown and how tough it will be.
Northern Ireland’s hospitals are operating at 104% of capacity.
A couple of days ago, a row of 17 ambulances were parked up outside Antrim Area Hospital, with patients being treated inside the vehicles as there was no space inside the hospital itself.
There were 12 more deaths and 656 new cases in Northern Ireland on Thursday; per capita, that’s around four times the rate across the border in the Republic of Ireland, which has the lowest infection rates in the EU at the moment.
Clearly something had to be done and even Hospitality Ulster, representing bars and hotels in Northern Ireland, called for a lockdown before the Executive met.
And so, after a period of all too brief festive respite, businesses across Northern Ireland must shut their doors once more, as a particularly grim January beckons.
Northern Ireland’s political leaders will hope a weary public will heed the message of personal responsibility as they plough through this bleak time.