18 March 2020

ALL Newry, Mourne and Down Council buildings across the district have been placed in lockdown for two weeks as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

The unprecedented decision — which will be reviewed at the end of the month — applies to the local authority’s Downshire Civic Centre headquarters in Downpatrick, Down Arts Centre, Down County Museum, Down Leisure Centre and all other leisure and community centres across the entire district.

Councillors unanimously agreed the move at an emergency council meeting on Monday night but are allowing limited public access to the Downshire Civic Centre in order for the public to submit planning and building control applications, register births, deaths and marriages.

Staff who work at the various council facilities which have been placed in lockdown will remain in place and continue to be paid, with politicians warning that the closure could potentially last for many months.

All of the district’s household recycling centres remain open and bin collections will continue as normal, with politicians insisting that the staff who deliver these particular services are provided with appropriate protective equipment. 

Council-owned parks, including Delamont outside Killyleagh, also remain open.

The decision to close the doors of all council buildings to the public to help keep them safe and prevent the virus from spreading, came just days after councillors pulled the plug on yesterday’s planned St Patrick’s Festival parade in Downpatrick.

Monday’s decision by councillors to close public buildings came in the wake of the virtual wipeout of the district’s sports programme due to the virus, with all sports now suspended. This Sunday’s first horse race meeting of the year in Downpatrick will go ahead, but will take place behind closed doors with no spectators present.

Elsewhere, a number of community events have also been cancelled in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, while health chiefs have confirmed that the Downe Hospital is one of many across the province which has emergency procedures in place to deal with coronavirus patients. 

The Fountain Foodbank in Downpatrick has launched a new drive through facility in response to the coronavirus epidemic and reported an upsurge in demand over recent days, with almost 40  food parcels handed out last week.

The volunteers who run the service are appealing for more donations to help them cope with the increase in demand and thanked local people for their continued generosity at this difficult time for many across the community.

In addition, many people from restaurant owners to sports clubs, churches and other organisations have stepped forward to put their shoulders to the wheel to help others in need at this time in a show of unprecedented community spirit.

The decision by Newry, Mourne and Down councillors to lockdown its buildings came as Prime Minister Boris Johnston announced the most stringent change to the lives of people since the Second World War.

Local politicians were in the midst of debating a proposal to close all local authority leisure centres to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus when he made his announcement.

Mr Johnston — who had been under intense pressure to to ramp up the UK’s response to the spiralling coronavirus crisis — said people should now avoid all “non essential” contact, with the government’s dramatic new advice asking people not to go to pubs, restaurants and cinemas, avoid all travel and not engage in large gatherings.

People in a household where someone has displayed symptoms of the virus have been told to go into self-isolation as experts predicted the outbreak was entering a phase of “rapid acceleration” with the new restrictions being in place for up to three months. The Prime Minister said it was time to take “radical action” to stop the NHS being swamped with patients, with suggestions that people over 70 could be confined to their homes for months.

At Monday’s night’s emergency council meeting, leisure centres were described as “high risk locations” as people are in close proximity to one another, with politicians insisting that their key priority is to protect the public and staff.

A number also criticised the ”mixed messages” from both politicians and scientists on how to deal with the coronavirus and expressed concern that no decision had yet been taken to close all Northern Ireland schools.

Confirming the closure of local authority public buildings, council officials say that access to the Downshire Civic Centre will be managed in line with Public Health Agency guidance.

Council meetings will continue but with regard to new guidelines in relation to social distancing, they will not take place in debating chambers in Downpatrick and Newry as they do not have the required room to keep councillors apart.

At the conclusion of Monday night’s meeting, council officials confirmed that as its leisure and sports facilities will be closed, all ‘paid in full’ members will have their membership term extended to reflect the closure.

In addition, all direct debit memberships will be suspended until further notice with collections scheduled for April 1 and 15 stopped. Direct debits will not recommence until facilities reopen and members have received the appropriate extensions to their membership. 

All centre programmes and courses such as swimming lessons will resume when facilities reopen with the council imploring anyone visiting the Downshire Civic Centre to be aware of the latest Public Health Agency advice. 

The current guidance is that anyone who has a high temperature and continuous cough must stay at home for 14 days.

Further information on the closure of the various facilities is available by contacting on 0330 137 4000 or email at info@nmandd.org.