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'Milestone day' as all pupils go back to school... but traders are still in the dark

Businesses push for answers on dates for reopening their doors as NI lockdown restrictions start to ease


Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann

The last of Northern Ireland's pupils return to school today in what has been described as a "milestone" day in the region's exit from lockdown.

With more than a million Covid vaccinations now administered here, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill said it is "a significant day that gives us all hope for the future".

Other relaxations come into effect today, including:

  • Up to 10 people, including children, from two households can meet outdoors in a private garden.
  • Outdoor sports training will be allowed for recognised clubs, in groups of up to 15, provided all indoor facilities except toilets remain closed.
  • Outdoor retail such as car dealerships and garden centres will reopen, and click and collect services will resume.
  • People planning to get married or enter a civil partnership will be permitted to view potential venues, such as hotels, for ceremonies at a limit of up to four people.
  • The number of people allowed to attend such ceremonies will also increase, at a level informed by a risk assessment for the venue.
  • The "stay at home" messaging is to be replaced with a "stay local" and "work from home" message.

First Minister Mrs Foster said: "This is a milestone day that signals our confidence in the way ahead.

"Today all of our schoolchildren can return to the classroom; more friends and family members can meet up outdoors and those facing a life event can take comfort and support from the presence of their loved ones."

Deputy First Minister Ms O'Neill said: "This is a hugely significant day as we take some more important steps forward on our pathway out of restrictions.

"We should all take heart from this progress, which is good news for young people, sports, families, business and communities."

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The next review of the coronavirus regulations will be carried out on April 15.

Health Minister Robin Swann added a note of warning, saying that "we need to remain cautious in our approach so that we do not undo the hard won progress that we have made".

"Covid-19 is still present in our communities and therefore it remains as important as ever, that we all follow the public health advice," he said.

Education Minister Peter Weir said: "For all of us the priority must be to keep our schools safe and ensure they remain open.

"For staff and pupils this means following social distancing guidance, good hand hygiene and wearing face coverings where required."

However, a body representing hundreds of businesses in Belfast reiterated its call for the Executive to set dates for the full reopening of the economy.

Belfast Chamber said it is time to give certainty to local retailers.

Chief executive Simon Hamilton said: "Businesses in Belfast and across the region are looking to this Thursday's review with the hope that the Executive will set out clear dates for the reopening of large parts of our economy which have been closed now for nearly four months since Boxing Day. They are hopeful that this week will bring some much-needed good news.

"Their optimism comes from the fact that the Economy Minister has proposed reopening to her ministerial colleagues and also because the health situation is clearly improving to the point where ending the restrictions is more than justified and arguably overdue."

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said the restoration of click and collect services today "will provide a much-needed lifeline for many local independent retailers whose businesses are on their last legs".

He said: "This Thursday's Executive meeting will be one of the most important ever for thousands of local small business owners. With over 1m vaccinations, falling hospital admissions and decreasing new cases of the virus, there is absolutely no reason why the Executive cannot green light the safe reopening of non-essential retail, hospitality and close contact services for April 26."

Local leisure centre operator GLL said Northern Ireland is being left behind other parts of the UK, as they prepare to open gyms. It urged the Executive to publish indicative dates and clear guidance for the resumption of indoor training.

GLL regional director Gareth Kirk said: "People are on the brink and in desperate need of their usual coping mechanisms.

"Be it a weight session, treadmill run or swim with the family, they deserve the chance to let off steam and look after their health.

"As those in England, Scotland and Wales prepare to do just that, staff and customers here in Northern Ireland are being let down."

Yesterday one further death linked to Covid-19 was announced in Northern Ireland, while 89 new positive cases were confirmed.

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