Face masks will be mandatory in shops here from next Monday as the Executive delayed the reopening of alcohol-only pubs to ensure children can return to schools full-time starting from August 31.
The significant announcements follow a meeting of Stormont ministers on Thursday amid news that our R-rate is highly likely to be over 1 and 43 new Covid-19 cases were reported — the highest daily increase since May 13.
Health Minister Robin Swann warned the rise in positive cases was a “wake-up call for the complacent”.
First Minister Arlene Foster explained the decision to delay the reopening of so-called wet pubs until September 1 was down to the R number, which she said could be as high as 1.3.
The R-rate is the reproductive rate at which one infected individual goes on to infect others they are in contact with.
The Department of Health on Thursday stressed the R number becomes a less reliable measure when community transmission of the virus is very low, and will be “heavily influenced by small local clusters”.
Mrs Foster explained: “Because of the concern around the level of community transmission and the desire to prioritise the reopening of our schools, we have decided that it is prudent to pause the reopening of our public houses, and we have set a new indicative date of September 1.”
All primary and secondary pupils, including those who attend special schools, will return to the classroom with “protected bubbles” in place for years one to 10, and “minimised movement” for years 11 to 14.
Theatres and concert halls can reopen for rehearsals from Saturday ahead of welcoming audiences back for performances on September 1.
And spectators can attend indoor sporting venues from August 10.
Education Minister Peter Weir hailed the reopening of schools as “positive news” for parents and teachers.
“All the other protective measures that we have put in place and suggested to schools previously remain in place, so we are looking after the health and safety of our young people,” he explained.
“Full guidance will be issued to schools next week.
“The idea is to try and have the maximum level of social distancing.
“But the overriding issue is to ensure we have full classes.” Teaching unions, however, have called for further clarity from Stormont.
In a joint statement issued on Thursday night by the Northern Ireland Teachers’ Council, Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and NASUWT, they said concerns about the safety of staff and pupils remained.
NITC said that it fully supported the minister in “seeking a full return to normality for all pupils as soon as it’s safely possible”, but the Department of Education had not supplied “updated information” which brought a change in the guidance originally issued in June.
Justin McCamphill of the NASUWT added: “The statement from the minister, as usual, lacks sufficient clarity and detail.
“The changes to the New School Day Guidance announced (on Thursday) will force principals and teachers to again redraft and unpick physical changes which they have already laboured to put in place.”
The introduction of compulsory face coverings for shops and all public enclosed spaces has been welcomed by the British Medical Association.
“This virus is still very much circulating in the community and the most recent statistics from the Department of Health tell us that the number of positive tests per-day has increased three-fold from early July,” said Dr Alan Stout, chair of BMA’s Northern Ireland general practitioners committee,
“The recent relaxation of social distancing rules from two metres to one metre means people are at greater risk of being exposed to Covid-19. It is vital that we don’t become complacent.”
The Executive had this week launched a public information drive to raise awareness of the benefits of face coverings.
The ‘Wear One For Everyone’ campaign will now be rolled out over the coming weeks and will help inform the public why they must wear a face covering to help stop the virus’s spread.
Mrs Foster said: “Retail workers will not have to wear masks, it’s those people coming in to the shops that we are asking to wear masks.
“It’s about trying to give confidence to people who feel vulnerable and maybe have been shielding and we are asking the public to work with us and listen to what we are asking them to do.”
The First Minister also announced a high street task force to help the sector, which was last night welcomed by Retail NI.
On Thursday the Public Health Agency (PHA) revealed that 23 coronavirus clusters had been identified in Northern Ireland since May 25, when the test and trace programme began.
Currently 11 of these clusters remain open and some 168 cases of Covid-19 have been associated with these clusters.
Nine of the clusters have had five or more cases associated with them.
Earlier this week two businesses in Newcastle, Co Down — a sweet shop and an amusement arcade — closed temporarily following virus outbreaks among staff.
The 43 new cases on Thursday brings the total to 6,049. No further fatalities were reported, leaving the death toll at 556, according to departmental figures.
A total of 118 people have tested positive for the virus in the last week.
Thirty-eight of these were in the Newry, Mourne and Down council area, 19 in Mid and East Antrim, and 17 in Belfast.
There are currently two Covid-19 inpatients in hospitals here, with two being treated in intensive care units.
In care homes there are currently three active outbreaks of the virus.
Addressing the clusters, Dr Gerry Waldron, head of health protection at the PHA, said: “In the past seven days five clusters have been identified. Thirty-five cases have been associated with these clusters, with 239 close contacts.
“This should act as a timely reminder that we must not become complacent.
“Coronavirus remains in circulation and we have seen an increase in cases in recent weeks.”
Mr Swann added: “This figure (of 43) underlines the fact that the threat from the virus remains very real.
“If anyone still thinks Covid-19 is going to fade away, let them think again.
“We must all do everything we can to stop the spread of this virus.”