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Foster hopes for ‘definitive answer’ next week on schools reopening

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said as soon as the Executive can give more certainty over exiting lockdown, they will.

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First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a media briefing at the Hill of O’Neill centre in Dungannon, County Tyrone (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a media briefing at the Hill of O’Neill centre in Dungannon, County Tyrone (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a media briefing at the Hill of O’Neill centre in Dungannon, County Tyrone (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

First Minister Arlene Foster has said she hopes the Executive will be able to give a “definitive answer” around the reopening of schools next week.

On Monday, the youngest children will return to primary schools across Northern Ireland but are set to go back to remote learning after two weeks.

Mrs Foster said she hopes children will be able to stay at school.

“It’s important that we give that clarity next week so that parents can plan, and teachers can plan as well,” she said.

She said she was aware of the frustration among some regarding the lack of dates in the blueprint for exiting lockdown, but said there is an ongoing assessment of data, adding that restrictions will “only remain as long as they can be demonstrated to be proportionate and necessary”.

“Our early focus will be on education, the family and outdoor activities as we start out on the road back to normality.”

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Speaking at the weekly Executive press conference, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said they hope the process of exiting lockdown will be well advanced by June 10.

We will provide dates for future easements as soon as we are in a position to do so with confidenceMichelle O'Neill

“That’s where we hope to get to but there are so many variables that we’re very cautious not to give people false hope,” she said.

“We will provide dates for future easements as soon as we are in a position to do so with confidence.”

Mrs Foster said the R number in Northern Ireland is between 0.65 and 0.75, and hailed the fall in the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 down to 5%.

“Just over two months ago on the highest day for reported cases, 2,315 people tested positive for the virus, the figure from today’s dashboard is 163,” she said.

The First Minister also welcomed that by the end of this month the SSE Arena will have the capacity to provide 40,000 vaccines per week in addition to the regional centres and GP surgeries.

The number of people who have received their first dose of the jab was approaching 600,000 on Thursday.

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Health Minister Robin Swann (Press Eye/PA)

Health Minister Robin Swann (Press Eye/PA)

PA

Health Minister Robin Swann (Press Eye/PA)

Earlier, Health Minister Robin Swann announced that Northern Ireland’s Nightingale facility at Belfast City Hospital has been “prioritised for de-escalation”.

Mr Swann said that, as the pressures from the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic reduce, the health service is “de-escalating” the ICU to rebuild elective care services.

“Belfast City Hospital normally hosts our complex high-priority surgery on behalf of the region so I’m keen that we scale up this high-priority surgery as quickly as possible,” he told the Stormont Health Committee.

Critical care for Covid patients will be delivered at the Mater Hospital.

“Elective care rebuild must reflect a regional prioritisation to ensure that those in most clinical need, regardless of place of residence, are prioritised,” he said.

“I have asked our trusts to proceed with developing ambitious rebuild plans to cover the initial period from April to June.”

Mr Swann said that, of 1,076 surgeries cancelled across January and February, 86.2% have been rescheduled or completed, with 149 still being worked on.

“That level of those still waiting is continually decreasing,” he said.

However, Mr Swann sounded a note of caution around the potential impact of new variants once restrictions start to be relaxed.

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The Mater Hospital in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Mater Hospital in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

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The Mater Hospital in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

He also appeared to rule out the idea of vaccine certification to enter restaurants or cinemas.

“It’s not something, from a personal point of view, that I think we should ever develop in Northern Ireland, that we would need to provide certification of vaccination to enter a cinema or a restaurant, that’s not something that sits comfortably with me,” he said.

Mr Swann said talks are taking place at a UK-wide level about possible certification for international travel.

He said “good progress” is still being made in the pandemic but the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 “remains high”.

“Therefore I must emphasise that if increasing social contact goes again too quickly, we may find ourselves back in the cycle that we’ve seen, but we know the rollout of the vaccination programme continues to make good progress and is expected to have a substantial impact on the epidemic in the medium to longer term,” he told MLAs.

Mr Swann also highlighted the “ongoing risk of increased transmissibility from new variants of the virus that have been identified elsewhere”.

He said cases of the South African variant have been confirmed in Northern Ireland over the last week.

He said no cases of the Brazilian variant have been reported in the region so far.

“The full impact of the new variants will only be seen when measures are relaxed and the R number may rise more than would previously have been the case,” he said.

Three more people have died with Covid-19 and another 163 tested positive for the virus, the department of health notified earlier.

A total of 244 Covid patients were in hospital and 29 in intensive care on Thursday.

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