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Focus on coronavirus infection rate as Northern Ireland leaders lay out next steps

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Keeping the coronavirus rate of infection - the R number - low will guide Northern Ireland out of lockdown and not an arbitrary timetable, Arlene Foster has said

Keeping the coronavirus rate of infection - the R number - low will guide Northern Ireland out of lockdown and not an arbitrary timetable, Arlene Foster has said

AP

Keeping the coronavirus rate of infection - the R number - low will guide Northern Ireland out of lockdown and not an arbitrary timetable, Arlene Foster has said

Keeping the coronavirus rate of infection - the R number - low will guide Northern Ireland out of lockdown and not an arbitrary timetable, Arlene Foster has said.

And if it doesn't go down, restrictions could be toughened again, the First Minister added.

Also speaking at the Stormont daily Covid-19 briefing, Deputy First Minster Michelle O'Neill said any decisions to lift restrictions would be "guided all the way by scientific evidence" as she defended the decision not to include dates for introducing any changes in the plan.

"We will not keep any measure in place for any longer than is necessary," Ms O'Neill said.

"I understand people want to see that light at the end of the tunnel and we would much prefer to say we're going to do this on a certain date. The reality is that we have to be guided by the science, what's the best interest of public health."

She said the current 2,000 tests a day capacity would soon be increased to 3,500 - a "cornerstone" of the recovery plan.

Mrs Foster said the testing system sat alongside NHS capacity and the infection rate as the three key factors that would influence when the plan would move from one step to another.

The DUP leader said the flexibility built in to the plan would allow the Executive to move as quickly as possible once the conditions were right.

"If we could with certainty set dates, we would have set dates, but I think what we wanted to do to make sure that we set out the step-by-step process and then keep the flexibility to be able to move when that R number is at an appropriate place," she said.

"At all times, we will be guided by what's happening to the R number. Today that is at 0.79. We like to think that it is going in the right direction and if it does go in the right direction, we will respond to it."

Mrs Foster said timeframes outlined by other countries are often so "heavily caveated that one has to ask, is it of any use"?

"When they get to that date, they may not be able to move forward and then people will be disappointed," the First Minister said.

"I hope that people can understand when they look at the steps that if we comply, if we push the R number down, then we will be moving in that direction."

But she also warned that if changes to social distancing were brought in and the R rate rose to above one, the Executive would have to consider reintroducing restrictions.

"If we move forward and take a step and the R number goes above one then we will have to possibly look at coming backwards again. We may have to take a step back.

"I hope we don't and I hope we move in a way that is positive, so that we can give some certainty to people and our economy can begin to start on the road to recovery. That's critical for the well-being of everybody."

Ms O'Neill said it would be a fine balancing act to make the right decision on dates for reducing restrictions .

"You can come out too quick, you can run the risk of a second peak coming very quickly, the risk of the health service being overrun, the risk of us being in the place we have been trying to avoid for the last 10 weeks," said Ms O'Neill.

"There's always a fine balance between going quickly or too slow. It has to be struck and even now, no one can predict if and when a second peak can happen.

"We believe the step, the baby steps to walk us out of this, is helping us to avoid the second wave as best we can, but we need the public's help. The best way we can get there is by following the public health advice."

Ms O'Neill said that while the plan was based on the Executive's own modelling and scientific advice, there would be co-operation with the Republic of Ireland throughout.

"Clearly, we need to work together across this island and we need to move together on issues when we can," she said.

"Where we can be joined up, we will continue to do that."

Mrs Foster also said there will be news about business rates soon to help those most affected by the crisis. "There's been a rates holiday for three months and there will be further developments in relation to rates in the coming days," she said.

Belfast Telegraph