Lockdown measures are costing Northern Ireland an estimated £1.3bn a month but protecting public health is critical, the First Minister has said.
Speaking during the daily Executive briefing, Arlene Foster said she had been advised that the current restrictions affected 3% of GDP.
She said the devastating impact of the pandemic meant that the public accepted they would be living in “a completely different world” for some time.
“We have been briefed around the economic impact that this may well have on Northern Ireland and every month in lockdown costs around 3% of GDP. That in Northern Ireland terms is around £1.3bn,” she said.
Noting that good health and economic wellbeing were interlinked, she said that the Executive were working closely with the hardest hit industries like tourism and retail.
“From us on this stage today the public health message is still very critical in terms of flattening that curve, making sure we don’t see a resurgence of the curve going into this weekend.”
On managing the economic fallout, she said: “I’m on record as saying the virus is not going to disappear, we’re going to have to live with the virus for quite some time. Because of that, social distancing will be with us for quite some time. I know we’ve had some commentary this week about public health versus economic growth. To me the two are interlinked because we need to have an economy to go back to but it is important that public health is at the forefront of everything that we decide.”
Much of the focus during the update was on lifting the restrictions on visiting cemeteries.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said Sinn Fein accepted the need to change their earlier opposition, but also warned it was not yet the time to be speaking about an exit strategy from lockdown. “People talk about the new normal but life as we know it has changed and I think the public are very alert to everything that’s happening,” she said.
“The issue of social distancing is going to be a feature of our lives ... for perhaps up to a couple of years if not beyond.
“That’s an adjustment in itself in how we conduct ourselves in our everyday lives. As we have information we will give it to the public. As we have information there’s nothing that we will hold back on.”
The Executive has also agreed to amend the regulations to clarify the circumstances in which a person can leave the house to exercise including reasonable travel to exercise.
For example, a drive to a safe space or facility would be permitted.
However, taking a long drive to get to a beach, or resort where numbers of people may gather is unlikely to be regarded as reasonable, even for exercise.
However Ms O’Neill also rejected an earlier suggestion from Secretary of State Brandon Lewis that restrictions across Northern Ireland could be eventually lifted on a county-by-county basis.
“We’re not in that space yet,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.
“We’ve said we’ll review the regulations and we’ll do that before May 9 but we really, really must take this opportunity to ask people to stay at home and keep doing what you have been doing.
“This is the space we’re now in. We will not ask people to abide by these measures for a minute longer than necessary but our whole approach to this is all about bringing down the curve to stop people from dying.
“If people don’t adhere to that now, we are in danger of jeopardising the progress that we have made and reversing the trend.
“When we get to the point when we can relax these measures, then that’s what we’ll do at the appropriate time.”
Ms O’Neill added that it made sense to work in tandem with the Irish Government to relax restrictions across the island.
“There’s no doubt that this pandemic is proceeding in a similar course right across this island,” she said.
“The numbers speak for themselves, in that our death rate here is probably 50-60% less than what has badly been experienced in Britain.”
She continued: “We have a memorandum of understanding now [with the Irish Government] and it’s important that we work together on the issues of modelling, on the issue of restrictions and what they look like across the island, and we work together where we can to the advantage of the people that we look after.”
Mrs Foster agreed that co-operation was vital, but said the comparison between Northern Ireland and the Republic was more nuanced due to different data systems.
Last night the PSNI welcomed the latest guidance from the Executive on restrictions.
Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said: “We welcome today’s announcement and the clarity that the change to the regulations and any associated guidance will bring to the public and police officers alike.”
Between March 30 and April 24 the PSNI has issued 570 Community Resolution Notices and 358 penalty notices in relation to policing restrictions.