Dangerous and anti-social house parties in Belfast’s Holyland student district will not be tolerated, Northern Ireland’s health minister has said.
Footage showing groups of young people congregating and drinking in the area of terraced housing near Queen’s University was “deplorable”, Robin Swann said.
Coronavirus restrictions in Belfast became legally enforceable by police on Wednesday and repeat offenders face fines of up to £960 (€1,053).
There was a strong police presence in the area on Wednesday evening, which appeared quieter than previous nights earlier in the week.
The minister said: “It is important that we take swift action because the scenes from last night demand it.”
“The Holyland situation does require urgent and co-ordinated action by the authorities, city council and universities.”
“We are on a knife edge. The new regulations are an attempt to strike the right balance.”
Mr Swann said the actions were deplorable but did not represent all students or young people: “I do not think they represent young people across Northern Ireland who have made sacrifices themselves.
“I do not want young people to be the scapegoats for the increase in Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.”
A special group including Stormont ministers, police and senior public health experts is meeting to consider their next move.
Local residents in the Holyland area have expressed alarm that people congregating ahead of the new academic term could cause a spike in infection.
Police have stepped up patrols but until now had limited power to intervene as the new university term begins later this month.
Police took action in the area overnight on Tuesday and into the early hours of Wednesday, as officers issued four prohibition notices at properties hosting parties, two Community Resolution Notices for indecent behaviour, and arrested and charged a 20-year-old man for disorderly behaviour.
Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Inspector Gavin Kirkpatrick said: “We have been consistent in our warnings to young people who have moved to the Holyland area and those who are visiting the area. Everyone has a responsibility to adhere to the Health Protection Regulations to protect themselves and others from Covid-19.
“Since September 13th, police have responded to 51 calls for service in the Holyland area. We are conducting patrols, with our partners, and where we see breaches of the regulations or anti-social or criminal behaviour we will take action.”
Queen’s University and Ulster University have said wrongdoers will be subjected to disciplinary processes and added that strong messages had been conveyed to all new admissions.
Limits on social interaction between households in the Belfast council area, Ballymena town and postcode areas BT43, BT28 and BT29 were agreed by ministers last week and are now enacted in law.
Postcode areas may be added and removed from the local restrictions as patterns of infection change and further interventions and restrictions can be introduced as necessary.
Limited exceptions include childcare provision and households that have formed a social bubble with another. No more than six people, from no more than two households, are allowed to meet in private gardens.
People have also been given guidance discouraging non-essential journeys outside the affected zones.
An interactive map has been designed to try and help make the postcodes covered more easily understandable.
There have been two further deaths from Covid-19 reported in Northern Ireland, the Department of Health said on Wednesday.
There have also been 129 new confirmed cases of the virus, making it 641 in the last seven days.