NORTHER IRELAND will remain under lockdown for at least six more weeks, Stormont has confirmed.
The northern six counties have been under strict lockdown measures since St Stephens Day, 26 December 2020, and these restrictions will remain until at least 5 March.
The order to extend the lockdown comes as Northern Ireland continues to experience high rates of transmission and deaths-- and though cases have halved in recent weeks from the peak in late December, they remain too high to ease restrictions.
Speaking yesterday, First Minister and leader of the DUP Arlene Foster said the lockdown "remains an appropriate and necessary response", with hospitals across the region under immense strain.
No decision has been made as to when schools could be expected to reopen, however special schools have remained open for students with additional needs-- something the Republic is currently struggling to reach an agreement on.
Removing the lockdown now, Ms Foster said, would risk losing "all of the hard-won gains", and she urged citizens to "keep pressing forward to provide our health service with the full relief and respite it needs from Covid."
"The Executive today has reviewed the current restrictions and agreed that they remain an appropriate and necessary response to the serious and imminent threat posed by Covid-19.
“Following a detailed outline from health highlighting the continuing pressures on our hospitals and ICU departments and the emergency of the highly transmissible variants, the Executive has agreed that the current restrictions will be extended for a further four weeks until 5 March 2021."
The potential loosening of restrictions from 6 March will be discussed and the situation reviewed by 18 Feburary at the latest, she added.
Deuty First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Féin leader, said the consequences of the record-high transmission rates are "still making its way through our hospitals where the health service situation at this moment in time is extremely challenging".
Last months, images of ambulances queuing up outside a County Antrim hospital sent shockwaves across the island-- but experts are concerned the health service will be reaching peak strain in the coming weeks.
Weeks after the situation in that Northern Ireland hospital, the same thing occurred in the Republic, with ambulances queuing for hours and doctors forced to treat patients in the vehicles outside A&E.
The Republic is also highly expected to extend lockdown measures past the beginning of February.