Can’t wait for that tattoo? How North’s lockdown exit differs from the South's

Explainer: Main difference is the North has not set dates for its five phases of reopening

Everything about the differences between the plans produced in Stormont and Dublin to lift the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 crisis on both sides of the Border comes down to dates.

The Irish Government’s plan came 12 days ago. Stormont’s came yesterday. Dublin favours a five-stage plan, starting on May 18th and continuing on June 8th, June 29th, July 20th and August 10th.

Stormont also favours a five-stage plan, but prefers to act slightly later. Its first phase starts on May 28th, 10 days later than the Republic. However, it also prefers not to fix dates now for the rest of its plan.

Here is how each of the phases differ, creating a two-speed approach that could affect people living and working on either side of the Border.


From the off, Northern Ireland is encouraging people unable to work from home to return to their jobs on a phased basis. The Republic, however, is only permitting a phased return for outdoor workers – construction workers and gardeners, for example – in the first phase. All workers are encouraged to continue remote working. A return to work for people in the Republic who cannot work remotely is not due to occur until the fourth phase on July 20th.


The reopening plans North and South are broadly similar, though cafes and restaurants can reopen earlier in the Republic (phase three, from June 29th) whereas they will not reopen until later in the North (phase five, date unknown). In the North, large outdoor-based retail outlets such as garden centres can open in the first phase. In the South, garden centres, hardware stores and farmers' markets can open in this phase. Other outlets such as homeware stores, opticians, motor and bicycle retail and repair businesses, office product retailers, electrical, IT and phone shops and repairers can also reopen. Tattoo and piercing will be permitted in the North from the fourth phase, but not until the fifth phase in the Republic.


The North is planning a more detailed phasing-in for the reopening of schools than in the South. The Government in Dublin is permitting schools and third-level institutions to reopen on a phased basis from the new academic year. The Belfast government is moving faster, permitting more children to attend school earlier, specially the children of “key workers” within an extended definition of that term, from the second phase. From the third phase, more children of “priority cohorts” can return to school on a part-time basis. From the fourth phase, schools will reopen to accommodate all pupils on a part-time basis with a mixture of in-school and remote teaching. From the fifth phase, schools will be reopened on a full-time basis to “early years provision”. In the South, creches, childminders and pre-schools can reopen from June 29th on a phased basis with social distancing and other requirements; the North’s reopening plan has no details on creches and childcare.


In the North, outdoor spaces and public sports amenities will open from May 28th with walking, running, cycling, some water activities, golf and tennis permitted (as well as drive-through cinemas). Dublin is more restrictive, with sports such as tennis and golf permitted in the first phase, but only where social distancing is maintained and the 5km travel limit obeyed.

Groups of people meeting outdoors

The North will permit groups of four to six people who are not from the same household to meet outdoors in the first phase of its reopening as long as they maintain social distancing; the Republic limits this to just four from the first phase on May 18th. The North has more specific details than the Republic on later phases of reopening: it says that up to 10 people can meet outdoors in the second phase, up to 30 people gathering outdoors in the third phase and, in the fourth phase, a wider range of gatherings including church services subject to social distancing and other cleaning requirements. Extended groups can meet in the fifth phase subject to social distancing or “other suitable mitigations”.

Indoor visits and activities

Northern Ireland is permitting visits to immediate family indoors in its first phase of reopening where social distancing is possible. People who are cocooning – the Northern Ireland Executive calls this “shielding” – are excluded from this. The Republic is not permitting visits to other households until the second phase on June 8th. From then, in the South up to four people may visit another household for a short period with strict social distancing. Some indoor activities will open in earlier phases in the North: open-air museums will reopen in the second phase but not until the fourth phase in the South.

People who are cocooning/shielding

The North and the Republic offer limited detail on what is to happen over the phases of reopening on those deemed to be vulnerable to serious illness from Covid-19 infection, the over-70s and medically vulnerable. In the South, from the second phase on June 8th, there will be designated hours in supermarkets and other retail outlets to permit the over-70s and medically vulnerable to shop with strict social distancing, the wearing of gloves and, ideally, face masks. From this date, visits to the homes of over-70s and medically vulnerable will be permitted for a small number of people for a short period of time as long as they wear gloves and face masks, and maintain strict social distancing of two metres. The North offers no similar advice but urges older people who are shielding for 12 weeks to contact their Covid-19 community helpline for support.


Funeral services have not been banned in Northern Ireland but government guidance limits attendance to up to 10 people. This is the same as in the Republic. In the South, the reopening plan permits slightly larger numbers to attend funerals from the second phase on June 8th whereas no changes are given in the North’s reopening plan other than gatherings at church services being permitted from the fourth phase.

Church services

Northern Ireland is permitting “drive through” church services and churches to open for private prayer with appropriate social distancing and the cleaning of shared contact hard surfaces in its first phase. The Republic is not permitting religious places of worship to open until the fourth phase on July 20th.