Further easing of restrictions set to be agreed by NI ministers

Dates for wider reopening of society likely to be announced on Thursday

In  Northern  Ireland’s hospitals 84 people are receiving treatment for Covid-19, with eight in intensive care. File photograph: PA

In Northern Ireland’s hospitals 84 people are receiving treatment for Covid-19, with eight in intensive care. File photograph: PA

 

A further, significant easing of Covid-19 restrictions in Northern Ireland is expected to be agreed by ministers on Thursday.

It comes after all pupils in the North returned to the classroom on Monday for the first time since before Christmas.

The North’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill told the BBC on Monday that she was hopeful by Thursday ministers would be able to announce dates for the further reopening of society.

She said a number of factors meant there was “the headroom on which to be able to move”, including “the vaccination programme being very strong, our ICU numbers coming down, the number of positive cases coming down – that all leads to a very encouraging situation, so I’d be hopeful that, with Executive colleagues’ agreement, we’ll be able to announce dates”.

Ministers are due to meet on Thursday to review the Covid-19 rules.

The First Minister, Arlene Foster, has previously indicated ministers may be able to announce dates for the reopening of non-essential retail and close-contact services such as hairdressers. Outdoor trading for the hospitality industry is also expected to be under discussion.

On Monday a number of limited measures came into force in Northern Ireland, including the reopening of outdoor retail such as car showrooms and garden centres.

The number of people allowed to meet outdoors has risen from six to 10, from two households. Outdoor sports training is now permitted for up to 15 members of recognised clubs, and more people can attend weddings, dependent on a risk assessment by the venue.

‘Stay local’

The instruction to “stay at home” has been replaced with the advice to “stay local”.

No further deaths with Covid-19 were reported in the North on Monday, leaving the total number of fatalities recorded by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland at 2,129.

An additional 97 people tested positive for the virus.

In the North’s hospitals 84 people are receiving treatment for Covid-19, with eight in intensive care.

The Belfast Trust announced on Monday that the temporary “Nightingale” hospital for Covid-19 patients was being stood down, which it described as a “significant milestone”.

“Covid-19 patients will now be cared for at the Mater Hospital [in Belfast] as was the case in the summer of 2020 before the autumn surge necessitated increased critical care capacity,” the trust said.

Vaccinations

Over the weekend the number of doses of vaccine administered in the North passed the one million mark. More than 800,000 of these are first doses.

Speaking during a visit to Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, Co Down as pupils returned to school on Monday morning, the North’s minister for education, Peter Weir, said it was a “very positive day for young people”.

He said he felt the very youngest and very oldest in society had “suffered most” during the pandemic and it was “important, not simply from an educational point of view but for the mental health and wellbeing of our young people to be back in with their friends in class”.

The minister said that while he hoped Northern Ireland had seen the last of the forced school closures due to coronavirus, “nobody can give an absolute guarantee going into the future but there is a range of mitigations that have been put in place”.