Further 17 Deaths And 640 New Coronavirus Cases Reported in Northern Ireland: Department of Health

BELFAST, Dec 19, 2020:: A further 17 people in Northern Ireland have died after testing positive for Covid-19 and 640 new cases of the virus have been reported. It brings the death toll to 1,183 and the total number of confirmed cases since the outbreak to 61,437. Some 3,668 people have tested positive in the last seven days. Of the 17 fatalities, 13 happened within the current reporting period, from 10am on Friday to 10am on Saturday. The four remaining deaths happened previously.

There are currently 427 Covid patients in hospitals across Northern Ireland, with 30 in intensive care and 23 requiring ventilation. Hospitals are operating at 101% capacity. A total of 82 care homes are also dealing with outbreaks. Meanwhile, schools will reopen as planned in January, Education Minister Peter Weir has said, sparking criticism from teaching unions. Mr Weir said "in the best interests of all pupils" he had decided all schools and other education settings would reopen in the first week of January.

He moved to clarify the situation on Friday after teachers and parents demanded answers amid uncertainty around how education will operate during the six-week lockdown in Northern Ireland. "My main priority has always been to protect our children's education, mental health and wellbeing. I believe that this can best be achieved through face-to-face learning and social engagement in schools," he said.

Justin McCamphill of the NASUWT, however, said an early return was "a disaster waiting to happen". The teaching union official said he was "incredulous that the Minister of Education has chosen to email school principals at 8pm on the last day of term to tell them that schools will be fully reopening in January - with no more in the way of mitigations than the existing guidance around hand washing, ventilation, using protective bubbles combined with the already mixed messages on social distancing and face coverings".

It comes after the Executive agreed to a new lockdown, which will come into force on Boxing Day and last six weeks. Families sharing Christmas dinner create "perfect conditions" for coronavirus to spread, a professor of psychology has warned. Professor Stephen Reicher, from the University of St Andrews, told Times Radio on Saturday: "Christmas is a gift to the virus. "If you want the perfect conditions for the spread of the virus it would be to be indoors, somewhere that wasn't well ventilated, somewhere which was crowded, somewhere where there's alcohol so that we forget our inhibitions, and that describes perfectly the Christmas dinner."

His comments came on the last weekend ahead of the planned temporary easing of restrictions over the Christmas period. The latest figures from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) showed the reproduction number, or R value, of coronavirus transmission across the UK is estimated to have risen to between 1.1 and 1.2. Prof Reicher, who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), which advises Sage, added: "Of course we don't want to give gifts to this virus, we want to look after ourselves, and the best way of doing that, I think, is sadly to postpone if we can.

"I recognise that for some families it does make sense to meet up - I mean, if you've got an elderly relative who might not see another Christmas or somebody who's suffering greatly, there will be exceptions. "But if we turn the exception into the rule and if many people meet, then we really are heading towards a disaster." He argued that it was important to limit the number of households that could meet up, with five days of relaxed measures over Christmas being "too long". Prof Reicher also warned about the consequences of people from different parts of the country, with varying levels of the virus, travelling to mix together. He said: "The real problem here is, of course, that if you mix everything up - mix up high levels and low levels (of infection) - then you reseed the infection in areas that it is not as prevalent in and you just relaunch the pandemic."