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Coronavirus: Where are the details? Lack of clear timetable in roadmap out of NI lockdown is criticised

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Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster at Stormont yesterday

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster at Stormont yesterday

PA

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster at Stormont yesterday

The Executive is facing accusations that its five-step roadmap out of lockdown lacks detail and dates, leaving many in the business community unhappy.

Unlike England and the Republic of Ireland, Stormont's blueprint does not include firm dates and will instead be guided by conditions.

The "recovery strategy" on how lockdown measures will be lifted in the coming months was presented to the Assembly yesterday as nine further Covid-19 deaths were confirmed, bringing the total death toll here to 447.

The local exit strategy on when businesses and schools could reopen came two days after Boris Johnson unveiled his 'Stay Alert' slogan.

However the leaders of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have said they will continue with their current 'Stay Home' plan instead.

Coming nearly two weeks after the Republic's timetable-driven plan, it potentially puts the island on two different paths on emergence from lockdown.

The Executive's new five-stage plan will be subject to change, depending on the progress made in tackling the pandemic.

In the first stage of edging life back towards normality:

  • Groups of four to six people who do not share a household will be allowed to meet outdoors while maintaining social distancing.
  • Those unable to work from home will be encouraged to return to work on a phased basis.
  • Large outdoor-based retailers such as garden centres are permitted to reopen.
  • Drive-through church services will be available and churches will open for private prayer.
  • Outdoor spaces, public sport amenities and drive-through cinemas will open, including some water activities, golf courses and tennis clubs.

Under the plan, the Executive said its decision-making "will be led by science and not the calendar".

First Minister Arlene Foster said there was "no set pathway for lifting restrictions" but changes in the rules will be guided by science and in "the safest possible way forward".

"We don't want to keep any restriction in place any longer than we have to, but in relaxing any measure we must be cognisant of the potential effects in the transmission of the virus and our ability to save lives," she said.

Northern Ireland's R-rate of virus transmission is at approximately 0.8, but medics have said they want to drive it down further.

Dr Connor Bamford, a virologist at Queen's University Belfast, said the roadmap lacked detail and more information is needed about what will happen in terms of moving forward.

"The guidance is very limited, there really should be more explanation around shielding and testing in particular," he said.

On not including dates in the plan, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said: "We looked very carefully at the issue of putting timelines and specific dates to certain areas and we decided against that for the reason that people want light at the end of the tunnel. We don't want to build up expectation and then you have to move back."

While the restrictions are to be reviewed every three weeks as set out in law, there may be reviews where no change is warranted and others when more change is possible.

According to the blueprint, the second step will see groups of 10 being able to meet outdoors, team sports training allowed on a non-contact basis in small groups, the reopening of some libraries and open-air museums, as well as indoor activities involving limited contact of less than 10 minutes and with two to four people.

The third step will see groups of up to 30 being able to gather outside, the reopening of more libraries as well as museums and galleries, concert and theatre rehearsals resuming and larger indoor gatherings.

The fourth step will see socially distanced church services, the resumption of competitive sport behind closed doors or with a limited number of spectators, leisure centres reopening and outdoor concerts resuming on a restricted basis.

Large indoor gatherings, nightclubs, concerts, close physical contact sports, restaurants, cafes, pubs and early years education will be included in the final step five, relaxation.

While business leaders welcomed the roadmap, many said the lack of dates would be problematic in terms of making plans. Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, said while it was a significant step forward, the absence of dates meant planning ahead would be a challenge for business.

Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, added: "We welcome visibility on the route out of lockdown but we will need to see a timeline to allow retailers and our supply chains to prepare."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he was "disappointed" by the decision not to include dates, but said he "understood" the Executive's concerns.

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken described the plan as a "start" and said it "sets a direction of travel".

TUV leader Jim Allister said that the devolved regions of the UK were happy to follow a joint plan when receiving Treasury funding, but now that it looked like the lockdown could be eased there was a "preference for difference".

Belfast Telegraph