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Reopening of cemeteries is welcomed but NI public urged to stick to social distancing

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Cemeteries start to reopen in Northern Ireland. Picture: Presseye

Cemeteries start to reopen in Northern Ireland. Picture: Presseye

Cemeteries start to reopen in Northern Ireland. Picture: Presseye

Political leaders have welcomed the Executive's decision to reopen cemeteries and burial grounds on a controlled basis so grieving families can visit the graves of their loved ones.

The policy change was announced by First Minister Arlene Foster at a Stormont press conference on Friday.

Graveyards were closed in March when coronavirus lockdown measures were first announced.

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken, whose party holds the Health Ministry in the Executive, said: "I welcome this decision by the Executive to support the Health Minister Robin Swann in allowing what is a humanitarian act and a decision which will be welcomed by many bereaved and grieving people.

"It is of course vital that everyone continues to implement social distancing and stay safe."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also endorsed the decision: "The trauma of losing a loved one has been made more difficult by the lockdown restrictions that seek to prevent the transmission of Covid-19. The suspension of our traditional way of marking a passing and processing grief has been very hard for many people to bear.

"I'm glad that the latest medical and scientific advice offers some relief for those seeking to visit loved ones and that we can permit the opening of cemeteries and graveyards with controls on social distancing.

"It's a matter of regret that parties publicly moved to different positions this week before hearing the advice necessary to make a determination on this issue.

"This has caused significant upset for many people."

The Foyle MP said that it was important that people continued to follow the lockdown guidance.

"This is not a broad lifting of the restrictions. We need to keep our guard up or more people will lose their lives unnecessarily."

The Executive made the change after Sinn Fein ended its opposition to the reopening of graveyards and burial grounds.

Mrs Foster said: "This is about balancing public health concerns with the basic human need for people to visit their loved ones' graves."

But she warned: "In lifting this restriction, it is vital that members of the public heed the advice around going out in public when they are in a cemetery, respecting the two-metre social distancing rule, limiting their interaction with others, and of course washing their hands thoroughly after they have been in public."

Mrs Foster said that following advice on social distancing and public hygiene had made a significant contribution to reducing the peak of the pandemic.

"We've flattened the curve, but now is not the time to be careless, we are not out of the woods," she added.

Glancing across to the Deputy First Minister, Mrs Foster continued: "We both know that a lot is being asked of the bereaved at this time. But we would not be asking you to respect these restrictions were it not quite literally a matter of life and death."

Sinn Fein had been opposed to reopening cemeteries, but faced intensifying pressure this week from unionists, from grieving families who wanted to visit loved ones' graves, and from Church leaders.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill defended her party's change of position, saying ministers had listened carefully to the distress of families.

"I understand there's a fine balance and making sure that people do not face additional burdens in terms of their mental health and wellbeing and our role in making sure that people are not put at further risk from the transmission of coronavirus," she said. "We recognised the comfort of visiting the grave of a loved one, and what that means to so many people.

"That's why we had committed to keeping this issue of graveyards under review.

"We've listened very carefully to the genuine distress of families who have not been able to visit the grave of a loved one.

"The opening up of graveyards will be permitted where there are those in charge of burial grounds who can ensure we have compliance with the regulations on appropriate social distancing."

The news came as it was learned that the Public Health Agency has recorded a further 15 Covid-19 deaths in past 24 hours here, bringing the total to 278, with 3,122 cases.

It's understood some Belfast cemeteries are to reopen from Sunday.

Belfast Telegraph