GCSE, AS and A-level schools examinations have been cancelled in Northern Ireland due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The decision was taken by Stormont Education Minister Peter Weir.

Exams due to take place later this month, next month and in May and June will not go ahead.

The decision about state exams mirrors the policy announcement made by the British government earlier this week.

No information is available on the alternative awarding arrangements that will replace the exams system.

Mr Weir has committed to announcing the new proposals once decisions are made.

Schools will be required to provide remote learning to pupils until the half-term break in mid-February, the education minister said.

Special education schools will remain open as normal.

Vulnerable children and children of key workers will have access to schools for supervised learning.

Direct payments will be made to families whose children are entitled to free school meals while they are off.

Childcare settings will remain open and childminders are allowed to continue their provision.

NI Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said children had been under pressure over the last year and denied the opportunity to mix with their peers.

She said youngsters had been "left hanging" and not knowing if they will have to sit transfer tests for grammar schools.

NI First Minister Arlene Foster said the R rate of spread of the virus was towards the upper end of that predicted, nearing 1.8.

She repeated that the last two weeks of January could see a peak in hospital admissions.

"It is a very concerning time and we will need to get through this." 

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It comes amid stricter lockdown measures, including a legally enforceable stay-at-home order, that have been agreed by Stormont ministers to step a rise in transmission of coronavirus.

Ministers agreed yesterday to give police the power to enforce the stay-at-home order, taking effect from Friday.

Northern Ireland's Police Federation expressed concern about "gaps" in that law.

Stay-at-home advice is to be put into legislation from midnight on Thursday, with additional powers being given to the PSNI to enforce the measures.

Household mixing will be reduced to just one other household or social bubble.

There are also additional restrictions to household mixing.

So in private homes and gardens, both indoor and outdoor gatherings will be restricted to members of one household, or a member of your support bubble.

Health Minister Robin Swann gave further numbers around the vaccination programme:
- Around 50,000 people have received a first dose;
- 91% of care home residents have been vaccinated;
- 30,000 healthcare staff have been jabbed;
- Some 504 boxes of AstraZeneca, representing 50,400 doses, have been received;
- 45 GP practices have been given the vaccine to administer to their staff and the over-80s;
- From the start of the next week all practices will have received 100 doses;
- By January 18, more doses are expected to be received from AstraZeneca.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland's chief scientific adviser has warned that people need to follow the new rules carefully to prevent spread of the highly infectious variant of coronavirus.

A spike in hospital admissions is not expected to peak until the final two weeks of January, Professor Ian Young added, after Stormont ministers significantly tightened social mixing restrictions.

He attributed the rise mainly to increased socialising before fresh lockdown measures were brought in after Christmas rather than the virus mutation prevalent in southern England.

Prof Young said: "The existing mitigations need to be adhered to particularly carefully to reduce transmission of the virus."

The reproductive rate of the virus is approaching 1.8 and hospitals are at full capacity.

Belfast's Nightingale hospital is being expanded.

Prof Young added: "It is likely that hospital admissions and numbers of patients requiring hospital treatment will continue to rise."

Additional reporting PA