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Coronavirus: New easing of restrictions has been hard-won, says Arlene Foster

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Arlene Foster at Stormont

Arlene Foster at Stormont

Arlene Foster at Stormont

Churches and other places of worship can reopen their doors for individual prayer as Northern Ireland's exit from lockdown continues.

Drive-in churches, cinemas, concerts and theatres can also go ahead, Stormont's leaders announced on Monday.

But those attending these events must stay in their cars and observe social distancing.

Announcing the further loosening of restrictions, First Minister Arlene Foster said they had been "hard-won freedoms".

Health Minister Robin Swann, meanwhile, said that the guidance on shielding for tens of thousands of people who are potentially at higher risk from Covid-19 is being "actively reviewed".

The developments came as it was announced another six people had died after contracting the virus, bringing the death toll here to 482. This figure released by the Department of Health does not include most deaths outside of hospitals.

Monday saw the initial stages of the lockdown being lifted as garden and recycling centres were allowed to reopen. Weddings where one partner or a close family relative has only a short time to live were also permitted to go ahead.

While family members from different households are not yet allowed to meet indoors, Mrs Foster gave her commitment this will remain under review.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said Monday had marked two months since the first person here died after contracting the virus.

She added that while we are making "good progress", "we certainly aren't out of the woods yet".

Announcing the new easing of lockdown, Mrs Foster appealed for people to behave sensibly, and strongly condemned reports of large parties inside a Belfast apartment block at the weekend.

She said: "Over this last few weeks, in what has been a very testing time for our people, individually as well as wider society, people of all faiths have turned to prayer in their homes and have used various digital platforms to stream religious services.

"The decision to open religious venues for prayer has been deemed sufficiently low risk in terms of Covid-19, but we do urge those who are availing of this service to exercise common sense.

"We will of course keep under review when will be the right time to permit religious services in places of worship where the buildings are big enough to accommodate social distancing, but we ask you all to be patient and we will let you know once the scientific and medical advice indicates it's safe to do so."

Outdoor activities such as golf and angling have also been given the green light to recommence, while groups of up to six people from different households can meet outdoors with social-distancing in place, including in people's gardens.

Mrs Foster explained that it is "not the time just yet" to meet other family members indoors.

"The scientific and medical advice has led us to conclude that there can be outdoor gatherings of up to six people from outside the same household provided that social distancing is properly maintained," she said.

"We are not at the time just yet to allow people to meet other family members from other households indoors.

They have been hard-won freedoms and it is vital that when you exercise those freedoms you do it in a way that does not put anyone else's safety at risk Arlene Foster

"We understand that's going to disappoint some of you but we would ask you to remain patient and trust that this Executive, informed by the most up to date scientific and medical advice, is in the best position to guide you when it's safe to do so.

"It is a matter we will constantly review and I give you that commitment."

The First Minister urged those who suffer any symptoms of Covid-19 - now including the loss of taste or smell - to self-isolate for two weeks.

"They have been hard-won freedoms and it is vital that when you exercise those freedoms you do it in a way that does not put anyone else's safety at risk," she said.

Mrs O'Neill said people needed to remain alert to stem the spread of coronavirus.

She added: "Last week when we launched the Executive strategy on the pathway to recovery, we acknowledged how we do not underestimate for one second the impacts the severe restrictions have on everyone right across our society.

"But we also acknowledged that public compliance and support has held firm and there's no doubt that people have and continue to show great patience at this difficult time.

"Our top priority remains to save lives by combating the spread of the virus through the targeting interventions and the measures and by everyone working together collectively, including hand washing, body hygiene and social distancing.

"Going forward, our whole society will be alert to targeting the risks to reduce the spread of the virus and further outbreaks."

The Health Minister indicated that an announcement was imminent in respect of the 80,000 people here who are shielding.

Referring to guidance to those deemed more vulnerable to the virus, Mr Swann said that the advice will be updated ahead of the end of the initial 12-week shielding period.

"I fully understand that all those shielding would like some clarity that the situation will not continue indefinitely," he said.

"I want to make absolutely clear that shielding will last no longer than is deemed clinically necessary.

"This work is being taken forward on a NHS-wide basis, led by the UK's four chief medical officers."

Belfast Telegraph