Coronavirus: Executive to confirm if lockdown easing can proceed

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Small outdoor weddings could be allowed to take place from Monday, if the rate of the spread of the virus remains low

The Stormont Executive is meeting to confirm whether some planned changes to Northern Ireland’s lockdown can start on Monday.

Vulnerable people advised to shield should be allowed outdoors from 8 June, ministers have already agreed.

Large retailers including car showrooms and shops in retail parks are aiming to reopen then, and outdoor weddings with 10 people present will also be allowed.

But the moves will only be confirmed if the R-number has stayed below one.

The R-number, or reproduction number, is the average number of people that one coronavirus-infected person will pass the virus on to.

Last week, the executive said the R-number in Northern Ireland was sitting at 0.9, and that it would only allow more restrictions to be eased if it was still below one on Thursday.

Ministers will receive an update from the executive’s chief medical officer and chief scientific officer about where the R-number is sitting, before they can confirm the changes that have already been provisionally announced.

It is understood the executive is not expected to announce plans to lift any other restrictions at this stage.

Shielders and phone shops

The executive’s five-step Pathway to Recovery does not include a timetable for each of the phases, but if these moves are allowed to begin, it means Northern Ireland will have implemented some of step two in the blueprint.

Measures that the executive wants to allow from 8 June include:

  • Small weddings and civil partnership ceremonies permitted outdoors, with no more than 10 people present;
  • Outdoor sports courts, horse trainers and dog groomers can reopen;
  • Hotels will be able to take advance bookings, ahead of a planned reopening in July;
  • Large non-food retailers can reopen, including car showrooms, electrical shops and phone shops;
  • About 80,000 people advised to shield can go outdoors with their household; or if they live alone they can meet one person from another household.

Ministers have stressed that people and businesses must still adhere to physical distancing rules, by staying 2m (6ft) apart.

Northern Ireland’s recovery from lockdown will not be “calendar led”, and it is likely aspects of different steps of the Pathway to Recovery could take effect at the same time, the executive has said.

On Monday, First Minister Arlene Foster criticised reports of complacency and a “flagrant disregard” for the lockdown restrictions.

“You prolong the journey out of lockdown if you break rules and create conditions where Covid-19 can thrive,” she warned.

Muting media microphones

Meanwhile, SDLP assembly member Colin McGrath has written to the first and deputy first ministers urging them to allow “enhanced press scrutiny” during daily press conferences given by the executive.

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Stormont ministers have been giving daily press briefings since the onset of the lockdown in March

Ministers should be committing to maximum transparency and briefings could be conducted differently, he added.

“I have noted on a number of occasions that local journalists have been prevented from asking supplementary questions as a matter of routine and that media microphones have been muted in the course of ministers delivering responses,” said Mr McGrath.

“In the interests of full disclosure, that should not be happening.”

He said allowing journalists to ask a follow-up question could place an additional time burden on ministers, but argued it would provide clarity to the public about the lifting of more lockdown measures.

Why does the R-number matter?

As R refers to the average number of people that someone with Covid-19 is expected to infect, the goal is to keep R below one to prevent the spread of the virus.

Prof Ian Young, the chief scientific adviser, said there are a number of other factors guiding officials.

For example, the number of daily new cases needs to be low in order for contact tracing, testing and isolating to work properly, he said.

The number of hospital admissions and critical care patients is being closely monitored as well, to ensure the R-number is kept low.

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