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Northern Ireland lockdown exit plan will be over five stages

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Sinn Fein junior minister Declan Kearney at yesterday’s briefing

Sinn Fein junior minister Declan Kearney at yesterday’s briefing

Sinn Fein junior minister Declan Kearney at yesterday’s briefing

Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill are set to publish a five-stage plan today to ease Northern Ireland out of lockdown.

But the roadmap to loosening coronavirus restrictions, which will be presented to the Assembly, will not include target dates.

Instead, it will outline the scientific and public health criteria that must be met before restrictions are removed. That includes the infection rate (RO) level and NHS capacity to deal with Covid-19.

Stormont ministers were finalising the details last night.

Sinn Fein junior minister Declan Kearney stressed that despite Boris Johnson's change of slogan from 'Stay Home' to 'Stay Alert', Stormont's message remained unaltered: 'Stay at home, save lives'.

"That's the message we want to see adhered to in our society," he added.

Three more coronavirus deaths were recorded by the Department of Health yesterday, bringing the Northern Ireland death toll to a total of 438.

There were 15 Covid-19 related deaths in the Republic, bringing its total to 1,467.

The overall death toll for the UK is just under 37,000.

The NI Executive will review the current lockdown regulations every three weeks but some reviews may not involve any easing of restrictions, and could even see a return to an earlier phase of the plan.

It is understood gatherings of four to six people in outdoor locations, with social distancing measures in place, will be permitted in the first step.

However, cafes, restaurants and pubs will have to wait until step five before they can reopen.

While schools are set to re-open in England next month, they will be closed here until September.

Step one of the blueprint could be given the green light in just over a fortnight when the current three-week extension ends.

However, the Executive is expected to move on several current measures before then.

Ministers will meet later this week to consider allowing people to exercise more than once a day. Reopening garden centres and churches for the purpose of solitary prayer is also on the cards.

Speaking at Stormont's daily Covid-19 briefing, DUP junior minister Gordon Lyons said the Executive was keenly aware of the impact on lockdown on people's mental health.

"It might be easier to get people to stay at home if they are able to do more work in the garden," he said.

Mr Lyons stressed that the public had to be realistic about what the coming months would involve.

"There will be no dramatic lifting of restrictions," he said. "Each step will be incremental and cautious. Social distancing is going to be with us for a very long time.

"Just as it has become a reality of how we shop, it will be a reality of how we work together, study together, how we socialise, and even how we worship."

He added that it would be "a grave mistake and reckless" to think we had beaten "this invisible killer virus".

Mr Lyons there was scope for clearer messaging around the construction and manufacturing sectors and their return to work.

He said he understood why people erred on the side of caution about activity that was legal, safe and beneficial.

"This is understandable given the extremely unusual and worrying times that we are living in," he said.

Acknowledging that the lifting of lockdown restrictions here would differ from that announced by the Prime Minister, Mr Lyons said: "That is one of the benefits of devolution, that each country can adapt their messaging and approach depending on their circumstances.

"We are committed to the right outcome for Northern Ireland."

Mr Kearney told the media briefing that the blueprint on course to be released today would reflect the views of the five-party Executive.

He pledged that the roadmap out of lockdown would be "cautious and pragmatic".

He said: "By adopting an approach that is informed by the science, it is also crucial that we do not set arbitrary timeframes for easing certain restrictions,

"We must retain the flexibility to respond to the emerging situation and achieve the best possible outcomes for all of our people. We are in a critical situation, we are not out of the woods yet."

The Sinn Fein junior minister acknowledged that there was "a potential for confused acoustics" arising from the Prime Minister's TV address on Sunday night.

Stressing that Northern Ireland was taking a different approach to England, he said: "That is not the page that we are on, we are still at a point where we are dealing with Covid-19, we are in the midst of that battle. It is essential that no-one gets mesmerised or distracted by what was said (on Sunday night)."

Mr Kearney said the Executive would listen to local medical and scientific advice as well as World Health Organisation guidelines.

Belfast Telegraph