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Seven more fatalities over weekend sees Northern Ireland death toll from coronavirus hit 476

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A further three people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in Northern Ireland, it was announced yesterday

A further three people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in Northern Ireland, it was announced yesterday

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

A further three people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in Northern Ireland, it was announced yesterday

A further three people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in Northern Ireland, it was announced yesterday.

It comes after four deaths were announced on Saturday.

It brings the Department of Health's recorded toll of deaths, most of which occurred in hospitals, to 476.

The true total in the region will be larger once fatalities registered in the community are factored in.

The three latest deaths were announced hours before some lockdown restrictions will be lifted here.

Garden centres and household recycling facilities will reopen from today.

Angling will also be permitted, as will marriages involving someone with a terminal illness.

Stormont's leaders are expected to announce a series of other relaxations this afternoon, with the region expected to formally move to phase one of its five-step exit plan.

Outdoor gatherings of four to six people from outside the same household are expected to be given the go-ahead, as is the reopening of churches for solitary prayer and drive-in services.

Yesterday two Church leaders cast doubt on whether drive-in services would materialise.

Catholic Primate Eamon Martin said he did not think the denomination's churches would be considering the option in "any serious way".

He told BBC Radio Ulster: "It really wouldn't be something that would be part of the Catholic tradition."

Church of Ireland Archbishop John McDowell said people may prefer to watch services online than sitting in cars in a place of worship's car park.

Stormont ministers will meet today to discuss the latest moves ahead of an anticipated statement by First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.

Yesterday's Sunday Life newspaper reported that relatives from different households will finally be allowed to spend time together without social distancing from next month - if there is no spike in coronavirus cases.

Social bubbles are expected to be included in Step 3 of the plan, likely to be introduced in the middle of next month, and would involve two dedicated households being allowed to mingle indoors.

However, those within this group are banned from close contact with anyone else. Executive sources say it will help tackle the break-up of close families, one of the biggest issues caused by the virus.

But they warned that, like all of the five steps out of lockdown, it depends on the rate of new deaths and infections being low, and the crucial R number staying below 1.

Meanwhile, Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer warned the UK's cohesion could be put under strain by increasing divergence in approaches from the respective devolved governments to coronavirus.

Talking to the BBC's Politics Wales programme, Sir Keir said there had been an "incredible sense of solidarity" across the UK, but the relationship between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was coming under pressure.

"The sooner, frankly, we get back to operating as four nations together, the better," he said.

"I do think responsibility for that lies very largely with the Prime Minister, who I would have hoped could have got all the ducks in a row before he actually made his speech last Sunday."

Belfast Telegraph