North’s lockdown exit plan to prioritise education and economy

Allowing people ‘freedom’ to see loved ones also on agenda, Arlene Foster says

Northern Ireland’s plan for exiting lockdown will prioritise education, allowing people to see loved ones, and the revitalisation of the economy, the North’s First Minister has said.

The blueprint for easing the Covid-19 restrictions, which have been in force in the North since St Stephen’s Day, was discussed at a meeting of the Executive on Thursday.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Arlene Foster said ministers had focused on "finalising our plans for a safe and sustainable pathway" out of the current restrictions, with work due to continue over the weekend. She said ministers were agreed on the "strategic areas where we will take action first."

These were, she said, education, “trying to find ways to bring that freedom back so that people can see their loved ones”, and economic recovery.

The document outlining the North’s “pathway to recovery” from Covid-19 is due to be published on Monday, but the Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, warned it could be delayed. “It was our desire to publish a document on Monday and if we can, we will,” she said. “But if it takes until Tuesday, then so be it, as long as we get it right. I think that is more important.”

Northern Ireland’s pathway to recovery document is expected to follow “data not dates”, and to include a three-week interval following each easement to allow time to review its impact on the spread of the virus.

On Thursday the North's Department of Health announced the deaths of five more people with Covid-19, bringing the total to 2,048. A further 281 people tested positive for coronavirus.

New data released by the North's Public Health Agency revealed that of 100 Covid-19 outbreaks identified in non-residential settings between January 18th and February 14th, 50 were among staff in a workplace, 16 among staff working in retail, 16 in a health and social care setting, 15 at a funeral and/or wake and two in a fast-food outlet or takeaway.

‘Sticking points’

Following the meeting of ministers on Thursday, Arlene Foster denied there were “sticking points” within the Executive over the roadmap, saying that ministers wanted to “get it right so that we’re not revisiting it again and trying to correct something.

“I think it’s very important we’re dealing right across the Executive, engaging with ministers to make sure that everyone is content with the way forward and again finding that all-important consensus,” she said.

Ministers also discussed the return of pupils to school, but did not change the decision made last week that only the youngest primary school pupils, in P1 to P3, will return on March 8th, and the oldest secondary school students, in years 12 to 14, will go back on March 22nd.

Members of the DUP, including the First Minister and the Minister for Education, had called for a review of the decision following the announcement that all pupils in England are to return to school on March 8th.

“There’s been a lot of talk this week about me saying that I thought we need to revisit schools, we said we would constantly review what was happening in schools,” Ms Foster said, adding that ministers all agreed that the return of pupils was a priority, and what was currently being discussed were “slight disagreements in the Executive and slight emphasis differences around the speed of which we try and get those young people back to school.”

The Deputy First Minister also warned that it was “too early for us to be able to say with any degree of confidence that people could book a holiday.”

The DUP MP Sammy Wilson faced criticism on Thursday for describing the North's Minister for Health, Robin Swann, as a poodle in a social media post. Mr Wilson said on Twitter that Mr Swann "needs to show some political independence and start acting as a politician rather than a poodle for the unaccountable chief medical officer."

Mr Swann responded, saying that "if I had to chose [sic], I would have always considered myself more of a Jack Russell. "

The Deputy First Minister described Mr Wilson’s comments as “disgraceful” and “totally uncalled for.”

The First Minister said it was “not language I would have used, but I think there is a genuine desire to have a debate about the need to get young people back to school.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times