Emerging from the coronavirus lockdown will be a step-by-step process, Arlene Foster has said.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister announced on Wednesday that social distancing measures will remain in place for at least another three weeks, and added that the ramifications of Covid-19 could continue for months or years to come.
Meanwhile, after Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced new proposals to allow people to be with relatives who are gravely ill with coronavirus before they die, Mrs Foster also said she “very much hopes” similar measures can be put in place in Northern Ireland.
She said Stormont’s Health Minister Robin Swann is currently considering it.
Another 18 people have died with the virus in Northern Ireland, the Public Health Agency said on Thursday, bringing the total to 158.
The First Minister said the curve of the infection rate has flattened thanks to compliance with social distancing rules, adding that plans for recovery are being made but warned it will not start with a “total reopening”.
“The lockdown will continue for another three weeks but I think what people want to see us doing now is to plan for recovery and that of course is the next stage in the process,” she told the BBC.
“It’ll not just be a total reopening again because that would be wrong, because what we want to do is to ensure that we minimise and continue to mitigate the coronavirus.
“We have been advised by our chief medical officer that there is the very strong probability of a second surge and therefore we want to make sure we contain that in the way we have been able to contain what is with us at present.”
Asked how long a step-by-step recovery process could take, Mrs Foster said the executive will be “led by the science”.
“It is a process, I know it’s very frustrating for people but I think what the Northern Ireland public need to hear this morning is we are planning for recovery because we know this lockdown has an impact,” she said.
“It has a very positive impact in terms of the coronavirus but it also has a negative impact in terms of mental health of our population, the fact that people are feeling isolated but also the economic impact and I think that is a very key element because we have been told by the office of budget responsibility that every month that we are in lockdown 3% of GDP is being wiped off the balance sheet, and we do of course worry for our companies coming out of this lockdown.”
She added: “social distancing will be with us for a long time, it is the case that we are going to have to deal with the ramifications of Covid-19 certainly from a health and economic point of view for many many months, possibly years to come.”