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Garden centres and churches could soon reopen in Northern Ireland as part of gradual exit from coronavirus lockdown

Some church services may resume and garden centres could reopen as part of a gradual easing of the lockdown, a Stormont minister has hinted.

Edwin Poots, the Agriculture and Environment Minister, said he believes it is time to move towards a "graduated response" to reducing the restrictions.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said relaxing of restrictions will be reviewed early next week, depending on medical and scientific advice.

At yesterday's Executive briefing, Mr Poots said the public could feel hope following the recent reopening of cemeteries, pedestrian access to forest parks and public waste facilities.

He suggested there could be a phased reopening of some churches that can adhere to social distancing, or 'drive-in churches', where people can still come together, even if they do not leave their cars

Mr Poots said: "As we move through the various stages of this pandemic, of course our response, too, must change.

"And in order to flatten the curve, restrictions have been put in place to slow down the spread of the virus and to give us all a fighting chance in reducing the number of loved ones that we actually lose.

"This is the right thing to do. But the Executive has also tried to take a pragmatic, practical and sensible approach to our new norm."

Mr Poots was asked about the prospect of reopening garden centres, which he said are places that could potentially have limited numbers and practise social distancing.

Online sales have shielded some Northern Ireland garden centres from having to dump plants.

But for others, Mr Poots said the alternative to not reopening them in the near future was the Executive offering a "large compensation package".

He said: "The reality is that the materials they have to sell are not materials that can be sold in July, August or September."

He added that there could be a potential additional cost to the Executive "that we don't really need to pay".

Mr Poots signalled that church services could also begin again as part of a "graduated" unwinding of the restrictions.

"We can keep people with us by having a graduated response to it and ensuring that we do not put at risk or in jeopardy any further rise in this coronavirus or indeed a second wave of it whilst giving people a little more latitude to engage in some of the activities that they prefer to engage in."

He said some larger churches could put in place social distancing measures or, where that is impossible, worship while remaining in cars may be allowed.

Mr Poots said he would also consider whether to permit angling, given that it is a solitary sport that people engage in.

"They walk down to the side of a river, they do that on their own," he said. "Where there is little impact, those are the things that we can graduate to."

Mr Poots said easing some restrictions would make it easier for people to stay at home.

He added: "The purpose of these actions is to help people cope and stay at home longer. Small steps like this do not mean we drop our guard, it is not business as usual.

"We see the number of admissions to our hospital fall and we hope to see the number of deaths fall on a consistent basis."

Ms Hargey acknowledged that many families and communities were having a difficult time due to the "draconian" measures.

But she stressed the importance of remembering why the restrictions were imposed and said the Executive would learn from countries that were a couple of weeks in advance.

"This is about saving lives and we can see day on day that lives continue to be lost. What is clear is that we don't want a second spike or those figures starting to increase again," she added.

Ms Hargey also confirmed that there have been 57,000 applications for Universal Credit in Northern Ireland due to the pandemic, with 850 new applications made on April 24, and £1.3m of emergency support payments had been made.

Belfast Telegraph