Ministers in the North have given the go-ahead for significant relaxation of the Covid-19 rules in Northern Ireland from Monday.
From May 24th indoor hospitality will be allowed to reopen with mitigations, and up to six people from no more than two households are allowed to meet inside private homes for the first time since Christmas.
Also permitted is the reopening of Indoor visitor attractions, libraries and the remainder of the travel and tourism industry, receptions following weddings and civil partnerships, school extra-curricular activities, indoor group exercise and training and the full return of outdoor sport.
The number of people allowed to gather outdoors has been increased to 500, subject to a risk assessment, and up to 500 spectators are permitted at outdoor events.
The official advice to “Stay Local” has also been removed.
The measures were agreed by ministers last month subject to a review of the Covid-19 situation nearer the time and were rubber-stamped at a meeting of the North’s Executive on Thursday.
Ministers also considered Northern Ireland’s policy on international travel and agreed a “green list” of countries where people can travel to without having to quarantine on their return.
Following discussions they agreed to include Portugal on the list, which follows that agreed elsewhere in the UK and includes 12 destinations including Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Iceland.
Travellers will be required to take a PCR test on day two after arrival, and those arriving from Portugal, Israel and Singapore must take an additional test on day eight.
The situation will remain under review and the countries on the “green list” will be reviewed by the UK’s Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) at the end of May.
The North’s Minister for Finance, Conor Murphy, meanwhile, has allocated £220m of Covid funding to support the social recovery from Covid-19.
A total of £60m is to be allocated to the health service, with some of the money to be used to support individuals suffering from so-called “long Covid.”
Northern Ireland reported no further deaths among patients with Covid-19 on Thursday. Another 90 cases of the virus were confirmed by the North's Department of Health.
On Thursday morning there were 37 Covid-positive patients in hospital in Northern Ireland, with two were in intensive care.
Both Ms O'Neill and the First Minister, Arlene Foster, welcomed the easements but said people should continue to follow public health advice as they enjoyed their new-found and hard-won freedoms.
“After an anxious wait for many, this is great news for our people and our economy,” Ms Foster said. “I want to thank the public for their patience and perseverance and I commend all those sectors who have worked diligently to prepare for restart.
“There is no doubt that the impacts of the pandemic over the last year will continue to be felt deeply,” she said, “but in moving forward, there is hope.
“Now is a time to look ahead and to enjoy these hard won freedoms safely.
“We must continue to do all we can as a community to keep ourselves and each other safe and I appeal to everyone to be cautious to help ensure we can keep heading in the right direction.”