Northern Ireland is tightening its coronavirus lockdown restrictions by reducing the number of people allowed to meet, as it fights a rise in COVID-19 cases.
In a news conference at Stormont, health minister Robin Swann said groups who meet outdoors would now be limited to 15 – down from 30.
Groups meeting indoors will be limited to six people from two households. That is a reduction from 10, from two households.
And in another apparent policy shift, Mr Swann said there would be “focused police enforcement” in areas with high numbers of cases.
“Unless we take action now I fear it would soon have been too late to arrest further extensive spread of the virus,” he said.
He added that a meat plant in Co Antrim was to close for a deep clean following a coronavirus outbreak. Cranswick Country Foods, in Cullybackey, processes pigs.
Mr Swann said at least 35 cases had been identified associated with the factory.
“All the workers and recent visitors to the factory should be required to self-isolate,” he said.
Across the UK, a total of 1,182 new coronavirus cases were reported on Thursday – the second-highest daily total since 21 June. There were also another six deaths.
But Northern Ireland’s department of health said the current estimate of the disease’s R number – or reproduction rate – in the nation was between 1.0 and 1.6. It said that meant it was likely to be around 1.3.
Last week it was between 1.2 and 2.0, so estimated to be around 1.6.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said there had been a significant rise in infections among younger people, which he said partly explained why a similar increase in hospital admissions had not yet been seen.
The medic conceded some of the evidence around people’s behaviour was anecdotal.
“We are seeing increased social mixing, close contact occurring in domestic settings,” he said.
“What we now need to do is act on that evidence and act on it in a proportionate way.”
Mr Swann went on to attack “armchair experts” who believed they knew better and had decided to ignore official advice.
He also confirmed one person had been arrested and was in police custody over “personal abuse” directed at him.
It comes after the Republic of Ireland “significantly” tightened its lockdown rules after the number of COVID-19 cases there increased rapidly over the past two weeks.
The government there ordered all businesses have to let employees work from home, while new limits were imposed on outdoor gatherings, and people were urged to avoid public transport.
Prime Minister Micheal Martin said the new rules would be in place until at least 13 September following a spike in coronavirus cases over the last three weeks. He blamed “a large number of people” for flouting the rules.
Analysis: Northern Ireland puts journey out of lockdown into reverse
By David Blevins, senior Ireland correspondent
Northern Ireland’s devolved government had already put the brakes on its journey out of lockdown. Now, it’s gone into reverse but not at great speed.
There had been speculation the Stormont Executive might push back again the 1 September indicative date for the re-opening of pubs which don’t sell food.
With the number of cases having increased tenfold in Northern Ireland since July, some feared the five-party coalition might even announce the first local lockdown.
In the end, they opted to re-impose restrictions on the number who can gather, but warn of focused police enforcement in areas with most cases.
They appear to have struck a compromise around the table, but that’s the name of the game when sharing power in a devolved government.