| 16°C Belfast

New easing of NI coronavirus lockdown 'major step on road to normality'

A major announcement of relaxations to social distancing measures in Northern Ireland yesterday provided good news for churches, hairdressers, schools and childcare providers.

Businesses normally involving close contact, such as barbers, nail bars and beauty parlours, can reopen by July 6.

And school pupils were told they will only need to stay one metre apart when they return.

But teachers will still have to stay two metres away from pupils, and are to return on August 17 in preparation for students in years 7, 12 and 14 coming back on August 24, with the rest to follow in September.

First Minister Arlene Foster called this "a major step forward towards normality".

"It has been a very tough time for our children, parents and of course for teachers, who have been supporting them remotely and I know that everyone wants to get back to classroom teaching," she said.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill praised teachers for their "exceptional" work in recent months, but acknowledged the return to school would be a challenge.

"You have to be realistic here, it's going to be very difficult for schools to manage this process in September," she said.

"Particularly for wee children, trying to get them to stay apart just wouldn't be fair and probably impossible."

From July 1 there will be no restrictions on who can access childcare after the service was previously reserved for key workers.

Close

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill

There will be no minimum or maximum capacity, but nurseries will have to abide by a 'play-pod' policy in which children are kept in groups.

Registered childminders will be able to care for children from up to four families from June 29, increasing to five in August.

Free school meals will continue over the summer following a successful campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford.

Other targeted programmes for young people will also be set up for the summer months, including support for schools running catch-up programmes for students.

Places of worship have been advised to prepare for reopening on June 29, with further guidance to follow on events like weddings and funerals.

There was also a major breakthrough for vulnerable people who have been shielding at home, with the restriction on movement to be lifted on July 31.

Mrs O'Neill said she wanted to reassure those who had been shielding that they would still be given support and advice to help them transition as safely as possible.

The latest steps were made possible, the two Stormont leaders said, because of a low transmission rate of the virus here.

The R-number, which measures the rate of the pandemic's spread, currently sits between 0.6 and 0.9, and transmission within the community remains low.

Mrs Foster added: "We've always committed to the fact that when we can move, we will move, because the regulations are draconian."

It comes as no further Covid-19 deaths were reported by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, with the total remaining at 543.

Across the UK a further 135 deaths were reported, bringing the total to 42,288, while a further four deaths were reported in the Republic, bringing the total to 1,714.

Mrs O'Neill said the low rate of infection locally allowed some "headroom" to make the latest changes. "We had flexibility built into that plan and we have headroom to continue to look forward," she said.

"We've also said that this is going to be gradual, and it's not easy.

"It's far from simple, but we're guided by the science.

"Everything we do is looking to the future - it's about supporting families."

Mrs O'Neill said she hoped the latest measures would help families and businesses plan for the future.

On financial support for the childcare sector, she said work was continuing with the Executive, with further discussions to be held next week.

"It's very clear we need to find a way to support childcare providers, parents and the workforce," she said.

"There clearly have been issues with the first pot of funding that was put out for childcare providers, so there needs to be lessons learned there and have a scheme that actually gets the money to the providers."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP welcomed the latest measures, but asked on Twitter: "How is it possible that you can go to Mass, get a haircut and have a pint but not visit your family? Rather than jumping from headline to headline, we should be providing detailed, strategic guidance."

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph later, he added: "I think the Executive have done this in a very ad hoc way, where they seem to be responding to lobbying from different groups - understandable lobbying - but when you do things that way you end up in a scenario where you just react to the last person you spoke to, rather than have a plan that people can understand.

"To have pubs, churches and hairdressers open, and we support that, but you still can't go and see your granny is just crazy.

"We're left in the bizarre situation, for example, where families can plan to meet up in retail outlets or pubs, but have no indication of when they might see each other in their own homes.

"And we have entire sectors that have no idea when they can safely return to business or what guidelines may be in place to support them.

"This ad hoc approach does not serve the needs of workers or businesses. What is needed is a strategic plan with indicative timelines."

Belfast Telegraph