Coronavirus lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland will be extended until 5 March, the first and deputy first ministers have said.
The executive backed the proposal from Health Minister Robin Swann at its meeting on Thursday.
Another review of the measures will take place on 18 February.
But ministers were also told that restrictions may have to remain in place until after the Easter holidays.
An extended lockdown closing non-essential retailers and encouraging employees to work from home began after Christmas.
Family gatherings are prohibited and police enforcement has been stepped up.
Schools are closed to most pupils until after February’s half-term, but a paper on a reopening date will be brought to next week’s executive meeting.
Hard-won gains ‘at risk’
First Minister Arlene Foster said extending the restrictions was an “appropriate and necessary response” to tackle the “imminent threat” posed by Covid-19.
She said she understood it would be difficult for many people to accept, given the uncertainty facing many businesses, but added: “To not press forward would risk all of the hard-won gains.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she recognised that the executive was “asking a lot of everybody”, but insisted the measures were important.
“To be honest with the public, we don’t know what will come after that (5 March),” she said.
Ms O’Neill said there was a commitment not to keep restrictions in place longer than necessary, but decisions would have to be taken in line with the health advice and concerns about the new variant of coronavirus.
The executive’s decision comes as another 21 deaths were recorded by the Department of Health on Thursday.
That takes the department’s total number of recorded deaths to 1,692.
Another 732 positive cases have also been recorded, meaning there have now been 98,351 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.
The Department of Health said that 70 people are being treated in intensive care units across Northern Ireland – an increase of three in the past 24 hours – of which 58 are on ventilators.
Northern Ireland entered a six-week lockdown on 26 December, with ministers holding an initial review on 21 January.
It was in response to a spike in the number of cases of coronavirus, which followed a relaxation of some rules in the run-up to Christmas.
Restrictions to be eased ‘step-by-step’
The reproductive rate of the virus – known as the R rate, measures the infection rate of Covid-19 and had risen to about 1.8 due to Christmas relaxations.
But the latest estimate from the Department of Health says it is sitting between 0.65 and 0.85 for cases within the community, but is still above one for hospital admissions and intensive care.
Ministers have agreed to keep the current restrictions in place until March but Mr Swann said it was “possible” they could be needed until Easter, which this year falls in the first week of April.
It is understood this plan is being discussed across the four nations but ministers will have to consider that in the review next month.
Ministers were also warned that restrictions will be eased on a step-by-step basis, in line with reducing pressures on the health service and ensuring the vaccination programme is “well advanced” before any relaxations are agreed.