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

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FILE PHOTO: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Belfast

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.

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