Stormont’s leaders have raised the prospect of Northern Ireland having to re-enter a period of full coronavirus lockdown.
As the region prepared for the introduction of fresh restrictions on domestic gatherings at 6pm on Tuesday, First Minister Arlene Foster said a two-week period of lockdown to try to halt the spread of the virus – a so-called circuit breaker – could not be ruled out.
“I haven’t ruled it out, I don’t rule it out at all,” she said.
Mrs Foster urged the public to work together so such a move could be avoided.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said a two-week lockdown is something the devolved executive would have to consider.
“I think the notion of a potential circuit breaker has to be something that we absolutely have in the mix,” she said.
“We have always said we will step forward and step back according to the virus spread, so initiatives such as that is certainly something that we would have to consider.”
Ms O’Neill said ministers would also be considering whether to introduce early closing time for pubs.
She said replicating the 10pm curfew being introduced in England would be “fair enough” to consider.
The repeatedly delayed reopening of pubs that do not serve food is set to go ahead on Wednesday, despite the move to reimpose other restrictions in the region.
“If you move forward with opening up then you have to have a very strong mitigation in place so there are a number of things that are going to be considered for Thursday’s executive (meeting) including the issue of opening times,” said Ms O’Neill.
She told BBC Radio Ulster the region was facing a “more challenging” situation than it did at the start of the pandemic in March.
The deputy First Minister said Northern Ireland was looking at a “difficult number of months”.
Later on Tuesday, restrictions will come into effect that prevent people from different households meeting indoors and limit gatherings in private gardens to six people from no more than two households.
The measures were previously in operation on a localised basis, primarily impacting the Belfast and Ballymena areas.
Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill announced the region-wide restrictions on Monday in response to the latest Covid-19 data, which shows that Northern Ireland has the highest infection rate across the UK and Ireland.
Ahead of a virtual Cobra meeting with the Prime Minister and the leaders of the other devolved regions, the First Minister stressed the need for a common approach across the UK.
“It is important that we have united messaging around all of these issues and the four nations work together to try to deal with the spread of the virus,” she told Radio Ulster.
Challenged on the rationale for allowing the reopening of wet pubs to proceed, Mrs Foster insisted recent infection clusters were not associated with hospitality sector businesses that have been open since the summer.
The DUP leader also reiterated her call for the Government to extend the furlough scheme beyond October.
“It is incumbent upon us all to recognise that financially we cannot expect to take action which impacts upon people and then not give them the assistance they need,” she said.