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Executive hopes to see last phase of lockdown by June 10: Michelle O'Neill

SF's northern leader gives first hint of when NI could finally begin to return to normality

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Press conference: Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster

Press conference: Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster

Press conference: Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster

Northern Ireland could be in the final stage of its lockdown recovery plan by June 10 if the public sticks to regulations, the Deputy First Minister has said.

In a message of hope delivered at the Executive Office's weekly press conference on Thursday, Michelle O'Neill became the first member of the Executive to give an indication of when lockdown may finally end.

While she sounded a note of caution on the issue, she said she was hopeful Northern Ireland would have reached stage five of the exit strategy by June 10.

Among the activities included in stage five are the full return of face-to-face teaching for university and further education students, celebrating birthdays with friends, the resumption of concerts and festivals, the reopening of nightclubs, and live music and dancing at wedding receptions.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

"Clearly, that's what we have set out in our plan," said Ms O'Neill when she was asked whether June 10 was a target date for stage five.

"Of course, that's where we hope we get to, but there are so many variables that we're very cautious not to give people false hope. Certainly, if things keep going the way that they are, if the public keep working with us, then you know we are very hopeful we can get there.

"There are so many uncertainties in dealing with a pandemic that we are reluctant after a year of so much self-sacrifice from so many people that we don't give them any false dawns, so I think we're hopeful, but that's as far as we can go for today."

Mrs Foster, meanwhile, said she was hopeful that a decision would be made next week on whether pre-school children and pupils in primary one to three can remain in school right up to the Easter holidays.

Under the current plans, they will revert to remote learning on March 22 for a week to allow GCSE and A-level students to return to class.

The comments came on the same day Northern Ireland recorded another drop in new cases, with 163 reported on Thursday. A further three Covid-related deaths were recorded.

There are 244 people in hospital with Covid-19. Of this number, 29 are in intensive care.

Also on Thursday, it emerged that almost 14% of patients whose cancer operations were cancelled this year because of Covid-19 were still waiting for potentially life-saving surgery.

Robin Swann told Stormont's Health Committee 1,076 red-flag procedures were cancelled as the health service responded to the latest wave of the virus.

The Health Minister said 149 procedures had yet to be rescheduled or carried out.

He also warned of the possibility of further lockdowns if the restrictions were lifted too quickly.

"We know good progress is still being made. The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 is still high and if there is growth in case numbers again, we hope that severe pressure doesn't follow," Mr Swann said.

"Therefore, I must emphasise that if increases in contacts go (up) again too quickly, we may find ourselves back in the cycle we have seen."

Mr Swann also said he did not agree with Michelle O'Neill's claim that Northern Ireland had "much, much higher" case rates of Covid-19 than other parts of the UK.

While discussing the Executive's roadmap out of lockdown on radio earlier this week, Ms O'Neill said the health service was still under "huge pressure".

"If you compare what's happening in England, Scotland, Wales, our cases here are still much, much higher even though we are on a downward trajectory and that's a very positive thing," the Sinn Fein vice-president told the interview.

During Thursday morning's briefing, the DUP's Pam Cameron asked the Chief Medical Officer if he agreed with Ms O'Neill's comments. Dr Michael McBride replied that he had not heard Ms O'Neill speaking and did not know the context in which her comments were made, so he did not want to say whether or not they were correct.

Instead, he referred to a range of official statistics that show Northern Ireland is in a better position than England in relation to the number of active Covid-19 cases.

However, Mr Swann disagreed with the Deputy First Minister's claims. "It's not a description of our infection rates that I would use," he said.

The Health Minister also said he was opposed to vaccine certificates being made mandatory.

Mr Swann said while they may be used for international travel, the idea of needing one to visit a cinema or restaurant "does not sit comfortably with me".

Belfast Telegraph


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