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Margaret Canning

Rooted in realism, but the plan to lift coronavirus lockdown in NI is coy about dates

Margaret Canning


The opening of garden centres features in Stormont's plan to ease restrictions

The opening of garden centres features in Stormont's plan to ease restrictions


The opening of garden centres features in Stormont's plan to ease restrictions

As First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill set out their plan for rolling back Covid-19 restrictions in Northern Ireland, it’s clear that there’s not going to be a quick return to how life, work and business used to be.

And all business wants from the Executive is a date - or even better, a series of them.

Under the categories of work, retail, education, travel, family and community, sports, cultural and leisure activities, it describes what we will be allowed to do - but just not when we will be able to do it.

We’ll all be relieved that in step one for family and community, we can meet in groups of four to six with friends and family, so long as we stay outdoors and maintain social-distancing.

And in the same phase, we can meet visit immediate family and be indoors with them so long as social distancing is possible - though no numerical limit is given.

Unlike in the Republic of Ireland, there are no dates given in an Executive Approach to Decision Making for when particular steps will be taken - that will enable the Executive to reverse steps or even eliminate them all together if the science on the transmission rate of coronavirus demands it.

That lack of detail is a major bugbear for business, who feel hamstrung by a lack of ability to plan for the future.

While billed as a five step plan, not every category actually involves five steps - in fact, only four are laid out for retail. And the categories won't be synced up when it comes to when steps are taken.

For retail, the first step involves the opening of open-air retailers, such as garden centres, and states that their restaurants and cafes can open but for takeaway only. Non-food retail opens next, where social-distancing can be observed. There is no stage three for retail - though stage four enables ‘contact’ retail such as hairdressing and tatoo parlours to open, subject to mitigations after risk assessment.

The final step will enable hospitality venues to open - restaurants, cafes and pubs - and it may prove controversial that all three have been lumped together.

In the Republic, cafes and restaurants are due to open on June 29 - phase 3 of its plan - while pubs return on August 5 as part of phase 5.

For many of us, one of the most tangible changes to our routine since the lockdown has been working from home.

That may continue for us, as step five of the plan for work states: “All able to return to work subject to mitigations,” but adds “remote working still strongly encouraged and maintained where possible”.

Interviewed in last week’s Belfast Telegraph, the head of Manufacturing NI Stephen Kelly said Northern Ireland needed to learn to live with coronavirus.

This is a plan for exactly that - a plan rooted in realism and caution. Just annoyingly coy on dates.

Belfast Telegraph