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Thirty weekend Covid-related deaths in NI as new strain prompts calls for Executive to meet on Sunday

A new variant and aggressive strain of Covid-19 has prompted the the UK government to lockdown millions of people over Christmas – reneging on plans to offer a slightly more relaxed festive period.

While Northern Ireland officially recorded 30 deaths over the weekend – 17 on Saturday and 13 on Sunday – the Executive has so far opted to keep in place plans for families to meet between December 23 and December 27.

However, the BBC is reporting that four of the five main Stormont parties have asked for an urgent Executive meeting today (Sunday), in order to discuss the rules over the Christmas period.

Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance are understood to have written a joint letter to the first and deputy first ministers asking to meet on Sunday, while the UUP’s Robin Swann has written a separate one detailing his concerns.

On Saturday afternoon, the planned relaxation of Covid-19 rules in England, Scotland and Wales was cut from five days to just one.

The move saw the first, deputy first and health ministers meet with the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser on Saturday to discuss the rapidly unfolding situation following news that tighter restrictions for England, Scotland and Wales will be in place over Christmas.

First Minister Arlene Foster said: “We know people will be worried about the news coming from other parts of the UK. We have had a detailed discussion about the situation in Northern Ireland. Progression of a new variant strain of Covid-19 in England is concerning, and a reminder to us all to be on our guard to the dangers of the virus.

“The Executive has already taken significant action earlier this week in advance of other regions. It is incumbent on us all to do what we can to minimise the risks of Coronavirus spreading. We ask everyone to think carefully about all their actions and follow the public health advice rigorously.

“We urge everyone to carefully consider their plans so that they are as safe as possible, particularly for those who are more vulnerable.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “We are clearly very worried about the Covid-19 situation that is unfolding. The speed at which this variant strain of the virus is spreading is deeply concerning.

“We have already taken difficult, but necessary, decisions here to introduce severe restrictions from 26 December. This critical intervention was made to protect the health service and save lives. We will be keeping the current situation under very close review and will continue to be guided by the advice of our scientific and medical experts.

“Christmas bubbling arrangements are in place for those who feel they need to come together. If you must avail of them, then please consider doing so for one day only, Christmas Day. Keep your bubble as small as possible and meet for the shortest amount of time you can. Please follow the public health advice and take every step you can to keep you, your loved ones and everyone around you safe.”

Health Minister Robin Swann said: “The variant strain of Covid-19 spreading in parts of England is a matter of serious concern. It is a rapidly evolving situation and we are liaising with colleagues in GB as it progresses.

“This should serve as a reminder to us all to be ultra-careful and to do everything we can to keep ourselves and our families safe, and protect the health service.

“If you have made plans for Christmas, revisit them to keep those who matter to you safe. Those who are vulnerable remain vulnerable. If you are meeting family or friends, keep it as small, as short and as local as possible.”

Ministers and their officials continue to work attentively and collaboratively on these issues, meeting throughout the weekend, as necessary.

Meanwhile, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium have issued a temporary halt on travel to and from the UK, while Germany is considering a similar ban.

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