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NI's new-found freedom comes with big responsibility: Swann

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Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Health Minister Robin Swann

The relaxation of lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland must not lead to a "free-for-all", Health Minister Robin Swann has said.

Alongside the First and Deputy First Ministers, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill, Mr Swann also called on those who attended a crowded anti-racism demonstration at Belfast City Hall yesterday to find safer ways to protest.

It comes as one more death from Covid-19 was confirmed in Northern Ireland, bringing the total recorded by the Department of Health to 535.

The UK death toll has risen by 176 to 39,904, and five further deaths were confirmed in the Irish Republic, bringing the total there to 1,664.

At the daily Executive briefing yesterday, it was confirmed that several new regulations will come into effect on Monday.

Those travelling into Northern Ireland from outside the Common Travel Area of the UK and Ireland will be expected to self-isolate for 14 days, or face a fine of up to £1,000.

This will apply as well to those who fly into Dublin with the intention of travelling to Northern Ireland.

Restrictions on those who have been shielding were eased, allowing around 80,000 vulnerable people to go outside with one other person while maintaining social distancing.

Outdoor marriages and civil partnerships are permitted, with the number of people attending limited to 10.

Outdoor sports facilities can reopen, as well as outdoor non-food retailers such as car and agricultural machinery sales.

Non-food retailers with a lower footfall which tend to have a larger premises, such as electrical stores, are also included.

This only applies to premises that have direct access from the street or a retail car park.

Mr Swann said yesterday that the new-found freedoms still came with a "heavy responsibility" for everyone.

"Changing some regulations does not mean a free-for-all. Changing some regulations does not mean the race is run," he said.

"In fact, we are probably only in the first lap because this is a marathon, not a sprint and there's still a long way to go.

"We've got to this stage by sticking together and keeping our distance from each other."

He thanked the public for their efforts so far but reminded them that the virus was still claiming lives.

"So, keep fighting back, keep doing the right thing and don't let the side down.

"It's still about keeping your distance, it's still about washing your hands and it's still about keeping yourself and others safe."

Mr Swann also reported the highest daily figure so far for Covid-19 testing at 2,759, with a total of 93,000 tests performed so far. In care homes, a total of 7,255 residents have been tested alongside almost 8,500 staff.

A further 1,500 home tests have been distributed, which is expected to increase significantly as more members of the public request them.

Speaking at the briefing, Mrs Foster added: "Until a vaccine is found, we are all going to have to adjust to the new realities of Covid-19 life.

"Covid-19 is still claiming lives in Northern Ireland and it can do that when crowds gather."

She said she understood fully why people felt the need to demonstrate against the "horrific" death of George Floyd, an African-American who was killed in police custody, but said they needed to consider safer ways to protest.

"Let's be clear, many have cancelled mass gatherings such as the Twelfth of July for very good reasons.

"People have been denied the opportunities to attend the funerals of their friends and relatives. Mass gatherings such as we [had] seen yesterday are dangerous, however laudable the cause may be."

Mrs Foster pointed to other countries that have had to roll back new freedoms due to a second spike of the virus.

Ms O'Neill added that the R rate, used to measure the spread of the virus, remained somewhere between 0.7 and 0.9 in Northern Ireland.

She said the lockdown advice still remained crucial for everyone, not only those who are shielding.

On the Black Lives Matter protests in Belfast, she said she stood in solidarity with the campaign but said protesters must be responsible.

"By gathering in large crowds, you are spreading the virus," the Deputy First Minister said.

"Find other ways to protest."

Belfast Telegraph