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Executive shifting focus to people's livelihoods, says Foster, as further lockdown restrictions eased

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First Minister Arlene Foster during the daily media broadcast in the Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings, Stormont on Monday

First Minister Arlene Foster during the daily media broadcast in the Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings, Stormont on Monday

First Minister Arlene Foster during the daily media broadcast in the Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings, Stormont on Monday

The Executive is increasing its focus to people's livelihoods as smaller retailers here have been given the green light to reopen from Friday.

First Minister Arlene Foster emphasised the shift in relation to addressing Northern Ireland's recovery from Covid-19, while stressing that saving lives remains a priority.

Speaking at Monday's daily Covid-19 briefing, the DUP leader outlined the impact of the pandemic here.

"The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on our economy and wider society," she explained.

"The longer people are removed from the labour market, the greater the risk of long-term scarring on our economy and wider society.

"We need to take action to help the economy recover and this will be gradual and in stages."

Her comments come as it was announced that all non-essential retailers here can reopen from this Friday.

However, Mrs Foster said services such as hairdressers and barbers will be "considered in subsequent stages of our Covid response".

She also revealed that an Executive meeting to be held on Thursday, ministers will consider implementing a New Zealand-style social 'bubble' which will enable different households to meet together indoors.

The First Minister stressed that any move to announce further lifting of restrictions will be made on official guidance, revealing that both she and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill had felt "personal pressure" to lift restrictions in that area.

"We are all very mindful in the Executive of the desire of families and friends to meet, we will consider that later in the week on Thursday as well," she said.

Mrs Foster also announced a working group involving churches and other faith groups will be established to discuss how to achieve the gradual reopening of places of worship.

Meanwhile, Ms O'Neill said she was pleased to see a second day in a row where no deaths with coronavirus had been announced in Northern Ireland by the Department of Health.

Describing the news as a "glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, she added, however, that we have to remain "cautious, careful and vigilant in the time ahead after the hard struggle which has been a hard struggle for everyone".

Both Stormont leaders also defended the PSNI's actions in relation to anti-racism protests held in Belfast and Londonderry at the weekend, which resulted in around 70 fines being issued to protesters.

Mrs Foster insisted the police's actions had been "proportionate", acknowledging that while those some of those attending the protests had managed to adhere to social-distancing, "there was a breach in the law".

"I think the way in which the policing operation was handled on Saturday was a proportionate reaction... regulations were being breached by those who had been asked by the Executive to find a different way to protest," she said.

"We can all understand why there was a desire to protest and to make their voices heard, but at the same time, that was against the coronavirus regulations to mass gatherings. I do, however, note that in Belfast there was at least and element of social-distancing, unlike other places in the UK."

Ms O'Neill said: "Like everyone else I was appalled by the killing of George Floyd... On Saturday, like others, I joined on an online protest to show my depth of feeling... Under ordinary circumstances I would have been on the streets protesting, like everybody else.

"But the regulations are in place to save lives. I think the (police) approach at the weekend was proportionate, but I do think it needs to be consistent. If people break the rules, then the police response needs to be consistent."

Meanwhile, the Deputy First Minister said the Executive is still considering its policy around face coverings.

"Previously when we have sought medical advice in terms of face coverings and the merit or not of them, we have been told that 'yes, okay, they're helpful, they can give people some reassurance in terms of moving around, however we need to watch that people don't lapse into a false sense of security'," she said.

"We have that still under review and certainly we'll be coming back to that discussion again later in the week."

First Minister Arlene Foster added: "We have, as an Executive, recommended that people should wear face coverings on public transport or indeed in shops, but there is a body of evidence that says actually when people are wearing face coverings they think they don't have to take the other hygiene regimes as seriously, and that's not the case, and it does concern me when I see people wearing face masks but they are not socially distancing, and that's wrong.

"You have to continue to be involved in social distancing even when you are wearing a face mask because the face mask doesn't protect you, it only protects others from you breathing upon them.

"We will have that discussion around face masks again on Thursday when we have more advice from our advisers."

Belfast Telegraph