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Coronavirus: Stormont to allow small outdoor weddings, hotel bookings and retailers to open ... but only if infection rate remains low

  • Final call on introducing latest wave of measures will be made on June 8

  • A further two Covid-19 deaths were announced on Thursday, bringing Northern Ireland's death toll to 518

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The final clap for the NHS takes place outside the Mater Hospital in north Belfast on May 28th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

The final clap for the NHS takes place outside the Mater Hospital in north Belfast on May 28th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The final clap for the NHS takes place outside the Mater Hospital in north Belfast on May 28th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Stormont is to allow small outdoor weddings, hotels taking advance bookings, and some retailers to open early next month if the coronavirus infection rate remains low.

Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill announced on Thursday that the Executive would make a final call on the measures when it meets on June 4.

The proposed easing of lockdown is dependent on the R rate staying below one. If it does, the measures will come into place four days later on June 8.

The Northern Ireland Hotel Federation said that allowing hotels to take advance bookings without disclosing when they can actually open was causing more confusion.

The Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, has said our R number is currently 0.8 to one - the Republic's is around 0.5.

The Executive did not ease the restrictions on people from separate households meeting indoors.

A further two Covid-19 deaths were announced on Thursday, bringing Northern Ireland's death toll to 518. In the Republic, there were 17 more deaths, bringing the total to 1,631.

The latest proposed lifting of measures permits small marriage and civil ceremonies attended by no more than 10 people to be held outside.

Outdoor sports courts, dog groomers and horse trainers could be allowed to reopen. Hotels could start taking advance bookings but this would be "at risk" as no date for them to safely reopen has been set.

Outdoor retailers - such as those selling cars, lorries, trailers, caravans and farm machinery - could reopen. So, too, could shops with a low footfall, including those selling electronics or household furnishings. But social distancing must be in place and these outlets must also have direct street access or direct access within a retail park.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds will set out further guidance for businesses next week.

Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill said that the measures represented "forward momentum" but that it took two or three weeks to properly monitor the spread of the disease. The Deputy First Minister said there would be no rapid easing of restrictions - "for me, it's about steady as you go". It would be June 8 before Stormont knew how the previous relaxation of lockdown - allowing small groups to meet outdoors, solitary prayer at church, and reopening garden centres - had affected the spread of coronavirus, she said.

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Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

Ms O'Neill stressed that the Executive must be confident the R rate didn't rise above one before implementing any further relaxation. She expressed caution about exiting lockdown when only 5% of the population here were believed to have had coronavirus.

"We've always said that actually coming out of this is going to be more difficult than going into it," she added.

The Deputy First Minister said the advice from Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Ian Young, was that people remain two metres apart - the World Health Organisation recommends at least one metre.

Ms O'Neill said: "He is very clear in saying that the further apart you are, the lower the risk. He indicated that the closer you are, the greater the risk.

"He also said that a few seconds together at one metre is the same as 15 minutes together at two metres."

The Executive will reconsider restrictions on people from different households meeting indoors on June 18.

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First Minister Arlene Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

First Minister Arlene Foster

Mrs Foster acknowledged people would be disappointed that Stormont hadn't gone further but she added: "Too many relaxations too quickly can push (the R number) back up into the territory we do not want it to be in."

The First Minister said public compliance with the current guidelines was crucial. "The vast majority of the Northern Ireland public have been exemplary over this past two months, although we are still hearing too many anecdotal reports of groups of people not adhering to social distancing," she added.

On reports of more mourners than the 10 currently permitted attending funerals, Mrs Foster acknowledged that it wasn't easy for people to stick to the rules when they were grieving.

But she said that the PSNI was investigating the matter and that files would be sent to the Public Prosecution Service.

The ministers said that traffic flow on Tuesday this week was up 11.5% compared to the previous Tuesday. Retail NI welcomed the Executive's proposals to allow more non-essential businesses to open.

Chief executive Glyn Roberts said: "This is a welcome step forward towards the wider reopening of our local retail sector and our town and city centres. We will be seeking further clarification on the timings, type and size of retail that can open."

Prominent hotelier Bill Wolsey urged the Executive to have the courage to spell out when businesses can exit lockdown.

TUV leader Jim Allister accused the Executive of "indecision and muddle" in its coronavirus response.

"They say everything is dependent on the R number but are reluctant to tell the public, of whom they demand obedience, what the daily R number is.

"To build public confidence they should publish it every day," the North Antrim MLA said.

While all non-essential retailers in England had the clear date of June 15 for reopening, Stormont "dithers and distinguishes, incomprehensibly, between retail park stores and high street stores", he said.

Belfast Telegraph