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Arlene Foster says stage 5 of plan to ease lockdown will be 'long before' December

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First Minister Arlene Foster pictured after a visit to Pond Park Primary school in Lisburn. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

First Minister Arlene Foster pictured after a visit to Pond Park Primary school in Lisburn. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

First Minister Arlene Foster pictured after a visit to Pond Park Primary school in Lisburn. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster said it was important to allow people to meet up early in the easing of the lockdown stages to help them cope with isolation and loneliness. 

She also expects stage five of the measures - when the most stringent of restrictions are lifted - to be implemented "long before" December 5.

"I would be very much hopeful (of) that, unless there has been a second peak or a second wave of this," she said during a visit to a primary school in Lisburn.

"This is a step-by-step process, it is a graduated process, and at all times we have to look at the prospect - and I hope it's not something that will happen - that we may have to move backwards again if the R number goes above one."

She added: "If we get the medical advice that we can move, then we will move."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said she expected social distancing to be in place for up to two years. And schools will likely face restrictions up to Christmas at least. But the lifting of some measures could begin in the next week.

"I think until we get to a point where we have a vaccine we're going to have to learn to live with Covid-19," she told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

"We have to be able to take all the measures necessary to bring down the transmission rate, to make sure we adhere to all the social distancing, continuing to wash your hands to try to kill the virus.

"These things are going to be a feature of our lives for some time to come unfortunately."

She also said they hoped to increase testing capacity to 3,500 a day. In Tuesday's Department of Health figures there was 934 tests carried out involving 704 individuals.

The Sinn Fein vice president said responsibility for testing lay with the Department of Health and the Executive would be discussing increasing testing levels on Thursday.

"We need universal testing of all residents and staff in all care homes. That's where our battle now is and that's clearly where we need to go," she said.

Arlene Foster said the Executive was keeping a close eye on the reproduction rate of the virus - the 'R' number - in order to allow "enough headroom" to move to the first stage of the lockdown plan.

The DUP leader told BBC Radio 4's Today programme it was currently at 0.79. The further away from one that number is the more lockdown restrictions can be eased. Above one means the health service would be overwhelmed.

She said they did not have to wait until the next legal review date of May 28 in order to relax instructions. She said any change would be after a risk analysis of its likely impact.

"This is all a finely balanced process," she said explaining that the more restrictions were followed by the public, the quicker lockdown could be lifted.

Under stage one of the NI Executive plan groups of between four and six people are allowed to meet outside so long as they social distance. Families are also allowed to meet between households and indoors so long as no one is shielding.

In England people are permitted to meet up with one person from outside their household, as long as they are outside and maintain social distancing.

Explaining the difference, Arlene Foster said it was important people were allowed to meet family or friends to support their wellbeing.

"We will not be keeping these restrictions a day longer than we need to," she said.

"We totally understand there are huge pressures, not just on economic life in Northern Ireland but on our societal life.

"We are a very sociable people, we want to come together again and we recognise the pressures there are because of these restrictions.

"We believe people need to have the love and support of their families and indeed in some cases when people don't have big families, their very close friends. And that has not been happening at the moment.

"We are very alert people have been suffering from isolation, from mental health difficulties. Particularly I think our vulnerable.

She added: "We believe family relationships are very important. We are thankful of the technology that has allowed people to meet... There is nothing that beats meeting up face to face."

Belfast Telegraph