Social distancing in North to be reduced to one metre

Move should help hospitality sector, says Foster, as no new Covid-19 deaths reported

Social distancing in Northern Ireland is to be reduced from two metres to one metre as further easing of the coronavirus regulations was announced on Thursday.

First Minister Arlene Foster said a "minimum one-metre distance between individuals can be considered acceptable in circumstances where appropriate mitigations are made".

She said this would have particular relevance to the hospitality industry, and that the Executive “will need to work closely with that sector to make sure we can work out the appropriate mitigations for that industry”.

Industry body Hospitality Ulster welcomed the announcement, and said it was a “hugely significant development for our industry”. Its chief executive, Colin Neill, said it had “the potential to save lots of jobs and some hospitality businesses that thought they didn’t stand a chance at two metres”.

The chair of the British Medical Association's Northern Ireland Council, Dr Tom Black, said relaxing social distancing to one metre would expose people to greater risks of catching Covid-19, and should be accompanied by "a clear and strong recommendation" to wear face coverings in all indoor spaces outside of people's own homes, and in all spaces where there was the potential for contact at less than two metres.

No new coronavirus-related deaths were reported in Northern Ireland on Thursday, according to the North’s department of health.

The total number of fatalities recorded by the department since the beginning of the outbreak remains at 547.

However the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus jumped by 850 due to changes in how data is recorded.

Information on tests carried out in regional testing centres, mobile testing units and using home testing kits from April 29th was added to the department’s Covid-19 dashboard for the first time on Thursday, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases to 5,724. The seven-day rolling average of new cases was two.

The department also published its current estimate of the R (reproduction) number of the virus, which it said had “remained steady” since last week at 0.6-0.9.

At an Executive meeting on Thursday, ministers agreed provisional dates for the reopening of a number of other sectors.

Tattoo parlours

Elite athletes will be able to use indoor training facilities from June 29th; betting shops can reopen from July 3rd, and close contact services such as tattoo parlours, and reflexology and complementary therapies on July 6th.

Indoor gyms and outdoor playgrounds will be permitted to open from July 10th, and libraries on July 16th.

Competitive sport will begin again on July 17th with a limited number of outdoor spectators permitted until July 31st, when their numbers will be increased.

Seated venues such as bingo halls and cinemas, as well as arcades, can reopen on July 29th, while leisure centres, skating rinks and soft play areas can open their doors again on August 7th.

A broader indicative timetable for the further relaxation of restrictions is to be published shortly but the provisional dates – which will be subject to ratification closer to the time – are intended to allow people to plan ahead.

“Let me be very clear,” said Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill. “Our ability to confirm these dates will be dependent on our control over the transmission levels of the virus nearer the time.

“We need to be open about the fact that we may need to amend these dates in light of the emergent situation, and the Executive is also prepared to step back, if the need arises.”

Ms O’Neill and Ms Foster also announced that funding for the free school meal scheme for disadvantaged children would be extended over the summer, and an announcement would be made to this effect on Tuesday.

No decision was made on whether to make face coverings mandatory on public transport, but this is to be discussed again at a meeting of the Executive on Monday.

On Thursday the Executive also gave the go-ahead to a number of measures which had previously been announced subject to the R rate of Covid-19 remaining below one.

These include the reopening of places of worship from June 29th; hotels, pubs and restaurants from July 3rd, and nail parlours and beauty salons on July 6th.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times