Northern Ireland has told people to work from home amid a growing coronavirus infection rate that is now at a similar level to Germany’s.
Businesses had been given advice to prepare for a return to the office – but this will now be changed to encourage employers to help staff do their jobs remotely.
In a statement, the Stormont government said: “Our collective aim is to reduce pressure on our hospitals, while allowing our society and the economy to remain open as fully and safely as possible.
“That means we all need to take action to prevent a worsening of the situation that would potentially require more severe measures.”
Northern Ireland has the highest COVID-19 case rate in the UK, and Sky’s science correspondent Thomas Moore says it is “on a par with Germany’s” – a country that is considering lockdown measures.
Infections have risen sharply since the first week of November, from about 400 for every 100,000 people to just under 600.
In Wales, the case rate is about 500 per 100,000; in England and Scotland, it is even lower at about 400.
The Stormont executive said it was “strengthening the message that people should work from home where possible” in order to help reduce transmission both inside and outside the workplace.
“We recognise that this may present challenges in some work areas and ask employees to work from home where they can, and advise employers to support this where possible,” it said.
First Minister Paul Givan added: “There is hope that we can come through this period over the next number of weeks by making that collective effort and taking personal responsibility seriously.”
It is understood an initial proposal to urge people who worked from home in March 2020 to do so again has been dropped, with ministers expressing concern that such advice could cause confusion as many sectors had been closed at the time.
One of the reasons for Northern Ireland’s higher infection rate is a lower take-up of the vaccine.
Only 79% of people over 12 have been double-jabbed and just 19% have had a booster.
By comparison, 80 to 82% have had two doses in the rest of the UK and 27 to 30% have had a third one.
Northern Ireland’s other COVID-19 measures include a passport scheme that is being rolled out next week, with fines for non-compliance from 13 December.
Under the scheme, people wishing to gain entry to designated venues would need to demonstrate evidence of COVID-19 vaccination, a negative lateral flow test result, or proof of a coronavirus infection within the previous six months.
Scotland has reconsidered its own COVID-19 passport scheme and decided not to extend it to pubs, cinemas and theatres.
Making the announcement, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her government had taken into account the situation being “precarious” but that cases were currently stable and slightly declining.
She also said ministers had considered the “inevitable impact” on the operation of businesses.
“This was a very finely balanced decision,” she said, adding that “at this stage, extension would not be proportionate”.
From 6 December, the first minister said proof of a negative lateral flow test will be accepted to access nightclubs or large events and can be used instead of the COVID-19 certificate – as is the case in Northern Ireland and many countries.
She urged people to take a lateral flow test before “any occasion you’re socialising with others”, or even shopping in a crowded place.
ANALYSIS BY THOMAS MOORE, SCIENCE CORRESPONDENT
People in Northern Ireland are being urged to work from home where possible as part of reinforced COVID measures agreed by leaders at Stormont.
Current advice for businesses to prepare for a return to office working is to be changed to encourage employers to support those staff who can work from home to do so.
Northern Ireland’s COVID case rate is far higher than in the rest of the UK – and on a par with Germany’s, where the authorities are also sounding the alarm.
The UK government’s dashboard shows that cases took off in Northern Ireland in the first week of November, rising from around 420 for every 100,000 people to just under 600 – a rise of more than 40% in a fortnight.
By comparison, the case rate in Wales is currently around 500 per 100,000; in England and Scotland, it is lower still at roughly 400.
A significant factor is the lower vaccination rate in Northern Ireland.
Only 79% of people over 12 have had two doses and just 19% have had a booster.
In the rest of the UK, 80-82% have had two jabs and 27-30% have had a top-up to their immunity.
The difference in those percentages means there are lots more people vulnerable to the disease in Northern Ireland, which gives the virus the opportunity to spread.
Why the recommendation to work from home?
Evidence suggests it is the most effective of all the restrictions used to control the virus.
It reduces contact with other people – while commuting and in the office – and that limits the potential for the infection to spread.