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UK's Health Secretary doesn't rule out idea of NI making early lockdown exit

Health secretary Matt Hancock has said a case "could be made" for easing lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland ahead of other UK regions.

However, he declined to say if he would support calls for an all-island approach to fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Hancock was responding to a question from the Belfast Telegraph at yesterday's Downing Street briefing.

Health officials have previously said the virus's impact has been less severe here compared to GB.

Last week the First Minister, Arlene Foster, hinted that Northern Ireland may emerge from lockdown at a different pace than other parts of the UK.

While acknowledging that a case could be made for an earlier easing of restrictions here, Mr Hancock voiced caution, stressing that lessening the virus had been achieved on the back of a UK-wide effort.

"The thing is that across the UK the level of the virus has been different in different parts of the country," he said. "We saw it (earlier) that in London the level has been much higher than in other parts of the country.

"But what's interesting is that the shape of the curve, the rise and then the fall in the virus that's just started, has been basically the same throughout the country.

"That means that moving together was the right approach at the start. I can see the case that could be made and of course we respect the devolution settlement.

"But ultimately if you look at the shape of the curve, getting R down (the rate at which the virus spreads) and getting the level of new cases right down, that's happened in the UK together."

Yesterday the Deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, reiterated the need for an all-island approach to the coronavirus, calling it "common sense."

Public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally, who is from Belfast, has also called for an all-island strategy.

But questioned on the issue yesterday, Mr Hancock did not give a clear answer.

He said: "Of course the relationship with the Republic is important as well. We have good relations in terms of a political level but also at a medical level in conversations with the republic on the decisions that they take.

"But we have very intensive conversations within the UK about the timing of changes within the country."

Earlier, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were asked about an all-Ireland dimension to any lockdown exit strategy.

Mrs Foster said: "I think I've always been clear that this is not a political issue. This an issue about saving lives. That's always been the modus operandi of the Executive, and certainly for me, in terms of the way forward."

Ms O'Neill added: "I think it's just common sense, what happens in Derry and Donegal, they're going to have knock on impact on each other."

The Taoiseach, meanwhile, set out a road map with five steps for how the Republic's society and economy can be reopened. The stages will be three weeks apart, starting on May 18.

Belfast Telegraph