Northern Ireland to enter six-week COVID-19 lockdown on Dec. 26

FILE PHOTO: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Belfast
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DUBLIN (Reuters) -Northern Ireland will enter a six-week lockdown starting Dec. 26 in a bid to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill announced on Thursday.

The British region has been in and out of some form of lockdown since mid-October when it was one of Europe's worst COVID-19 hotbeds. The most recent curbs were lifted last week, when all shops, restaurants and pubs serving food reopened.

All non-essential shops, pubs, bars and restaurants will close on Dec. 26 with the exception of takeaway food services, O'Neill told journalists.

"It will be disappointing to many, but I think a lot of people would also have expected it. It's very clear that we needed an urgent intervention. I think this is the right decision by the executive," she said.

Earlier this week television pictures showed patients being treated in the back of ambulances in a Northern Ireland hospital car park, after a warning that COVID-19 was putting healthcare under "unbearable pressures".

The heads of Northern Ireland's six healthcare trusts warned on Monday of the very real risk of hospitals being overwhelmed in the event of a further COVID-19 spike in January.

Northern Ireland on Thursday reported 656 new COVID-19 cases, the highest number in five weeks. A total of 1,154 people have died in Northern Ireland died within 28 days of being diagnosed with COVID-19.

The neighbouring Republic of Ireland has the lowest number of cases of any country in the European Union, but officials there on Thursday there warned of a "serious increase" in cases following the easing of restrictions.

New restrictions may be needed before the end of the year, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said. [nS8N2IP02W]

(Reporting by Conor Humphries in Dublin and Nandakumar D in Bengaluru; Editing by Franklin Paul and Lisa Shumaker)