By Amanda Ferguson
BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's devolved government is set to impose tougher COVID-19 restrictions, First Minister Arlene Foster said after a rapid spread of cases led to the cancellation of elective surgeries across Belfast on Tuesday.
The British-run region has become one of Europe's biggest COVID-19 hotbeds in recent weeks; its health minister described the situation as getting more grave by the hour last Friday and said further constraints were likely.
However the mandatory power-sharing government led by rivals Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have disagreed in public on how strict any new measures should be and ministers were still meeting late on Tuesday to finalise the response.
"Whatever we put in place will only be for a limited period of time so that we can find our way out of the restrictions that have to be put in place," Foster of the DUP said in a video posted on her Facebook page.
Foster said it was critical that "long term" school closures were avoided. Local media reported that a two-week closure of schools was being considered in what may amount to the toughest constraints anywhere in the United Kingdom.
Restrictions in Northern Ireland are currently not as severe as many areas elsewhere in the UK or across the open border in Ireland.
The Belfast Health and Social Care Trust announced earlier that it was cancelling elective surgeries in the capital for the rest of the week due to a rise in COVID-19 admissions
The city's main COVID-19 facility, the Mater Hospital, was caring for 10 ventilated patients on Tuesday, one less than capacity, the Trust said, adding that more will likely require critical care in the coming days.
Northern Ireland's health department reported 863 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday and seven more deaths, bringing its cumulative seven-day rate of infections per 100,000 people to 334.1.
(Editing by Padraic Halpin, Mark Heinrich and Tom Brown)