Northern Ireland’s coronavirus lockdown is to be extended for a further four weeks to March 5.
Transmission rates are decreasing slowly and new, more contagious variants are causing Stormont ministers concern.
An extended shutdown closing non-essential retailers, keeping schools closed to most pupils and encouraging employees to work from home began after Christmas and had been scheduled to end next month.
Curbs may not ultimately be lifted until Easter.
Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster said: “I appreciate that this will be disappointing to many people listening to us this evening.
“I think particularly of those who are feeling the pain of separation from loved family members and friends, for workers and employers worried about their livelihoods and indeed parents who are juggling the education of their children with work and other responsibilities.”
The rocketing tally of new case numbers has begun to ease off.
But struggling hospitals are expected to face even greater pressures by this weekend due to the lag between infection and serious illness developing.
Around 100 military personnel have been brought in to support nurses and many will work at the Nightingale surge facility at the City Hospital in Belfast.
Mrs Foster added: “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 continuing pressures on hospitals and intensive care units and the emergence of highly transmissible variants, the Executive has agreed that the restrictions will be extended for four weeks until March 5 2021.”
Stormont health minister Robin Swann proposed the step to help drive down case numbers and ministers agreed on Thursday.
There was none of the rancour and division which has surrounded some previous decisions by the powersharing administration during the crisis.
The outlook for schools is yet to be decided.
During a press conference in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, the First Minister said the reproductive number – referring to the number of people that an infected person will pass the virus on to – was now down to between 0.6 and 0.8, a halving of the rate of cases in two weeks, but that transmission rates were falling slowly.
She added: “This is undoubtedly the most difficult of times and we know the sacrifice that you’re all making to save lives and as an Executive we are committed to taking every possible step to move us forward out of this pandemic.”
Deputy First Minster Michelle O’Neill said it was a difficult decision and the position would be reviewed next month.
“It has been a long and hard road for all,” she said.
“There is no doubt that there are better days ahead but we need to keep working together right now to save lives and protect the health service.”
She acknowledged that people were worrying about what the lengthy restrictions would mean for their businesses and families.
“We know that we are asking a lot of everyone, we will do everything we can to make sure you are supported during this time.”
A further 21 people who tested positive for Covid-19 have died.
And 732 new cases of the virus have been detected, according to the Department of Health on Thursday.
There were 806 Covid-positive patients in hospitals, with 70 in intensive care.
Angela McGowan, CBI Northern Ireland director, said the economic damage could not be underestimated.
She said: “The Northern Ireland Executive must now redouble efforts to get business support to the firms that need it as quickly as possible.”
A total of 166,538 vaccines have been administered.
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