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Belfast social distancing breaches could slowdown Northern Ireland's lockdown exit


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People drinking on the street close to the Westlands Road in north Belfast, during the C-19 lockdown

People drinking on the street close to the Westlands Road in north Belfast, during the C-19 lockdown

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 9th May 2020

General view of PSNI officers in Botanic Gardens, Belfast as members of the public go for their daily exercise.

Photograph by Declan Roughan / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Lockdown - 9th May 2020
Photograph by Declan Roughan

Police presence in Botanic Gardens, Belfast.

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 9th May 2020 General view of PSNI officers in Botanic Gardens, Belfast as members of the public go for their daily exercise. Photograph by Declan Roughan / Press Eye. Press Eye - Lockdown - 9th May 2020 Photograph by Declan Roughan Police presence in Botanic Gardens, Belfast.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

People drinking on the street close to the Westlands Road in north Belfast, during the C-19 lockdown

Blatant breaches of social distancing restrictions in Belfast are in danger of slowing the pace of the lifting of lockdown throughout Northern Ireland.

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill are becoming increasingly concerned at the flaunting of coronavirus regulations in the city, which they regularly observe on trips to Stormont.

It is even more noticeable because the politicians are from small rural communities where social distancing is more strictly adhered.

Executive sources have warned that the behaviour of some groups in Belfast could lead to lockdown measures being extended because the reinfection rate there is higher than anywhere else in Northern Ireland.

For current restrictions to be gradually lifted the 'R' rate needs to stay below 1, meaning that every person with the virus infects less than one other. Before lockdown the R rate was around 2.6.

"Both ministers were shocked by what they witnessed in Belfast in the past week, people were out and about, mixing together, like it was a normal day," an Executive source told Sunday Life.

"There was little social distancing taking place, and this hit home to Arlene and Michelle as they are from small rural communities where folk have been following the rules rigidly.

"The R rate is closer to 1 in Belfast than anywhere else in Northern Ireland. If the chief scientific officer tells us that number has not gone down it will mean the pace of lifting lockdown will be slowed right across the region. Northern Ireland will be emerging from this as a whole, not area by area."

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People drinking on the street close to the Westlands Road in north Belfast, during the C-19 lockdown.

People drinking on the street close to the Westlands Road in north Belfast, during the C-19 lockdown.

Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX

People drinking on the street close to the Westlands Road in north Belfast, during the C-19 lockdown.

Sunday Life is aware of numerous street parties that took place in Belfast on Friday to celebrate VE Day at which social distancing guidelines were openly flaunted. Adults from different households ate and drank together, while their children played on bouncy castles. Photographs taken yesterday again show large groups together in the city enjoying the sunshine.

Our Executive source added: "Some adults, particularly in Belfast, need to wise up as their inconsiderate behaviour is impacting on everyone in Northern Ireland.

"There are 670,000 people who live in the Belfast metropolitan area, that's a third of the population of Northern Ireland, yet it makes up half of all coronavirus cases. If there is a spike it is going to be there - people need to realise that."

The Executive is due to publish a roadmap at the beginning of the week outlining how Northern Ireland will emerge from the current Covid-19 enforced restrictions.

Saturday brought a further four deaths and 56 new cases here, bringing to 430 the number of casualties and 4,078 the number of people infected by the virus. There has been just one fatality under the age of 39 while 18 people aged between 40 and 59 have died with Covid-19.

The figures from the Department of Health show that 51% of the victims have been male, 48% female while it is stated that the gender of one victim was unknown.

Figures suggest that more than half those who have died of Covid-19 here were care home residents. It has led to calls from campaigners for a public inquiry to find out if health authorities have failed the most vulnerable in society.

A further 346 coronavirus deaths were announced across the UK yesterday, bringing the country's death toll to 31,587.

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Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 9th May 2020

General view of PSNI officers in Botanic Gardens, Belfast as members of the public go for their daily exercise.

Photograph by Declan Roughan / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Lockdown - 9th May 2020
Photograph by Declan Roughan

Police presence in Botanic Gardens, Belfast.

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 9th May 2020 General view of PSNI officers in Botanic Gardens, Belfast as members of the public go for their daily exercise. Photograph by Declan Roughan / Press Eye. Press Eye - Lockdown - 9th May 2020 Photograph by Declan Roughan Police presence in Botanic Gardens, Belfast.

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 9th May 2020 General view of PSNI officers in Botanic Gardens, Belfast as members of the public go for their daily exercise. Photograph by Declan Roughan / Press Eye. Press Eye - Lockdown - 9th May 2020 Photograph by Declan Roughan Police presence in Botanic Gardens, Belfast.

Northern Ireland's roadmap is likely to mirror plans to be set out by Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 7pm on Sunday that will detail the way forward for the UK, which has the second highest Covid-19 death rate in the world.

But one key difference is that, depending on the R infection rate here, Northern Ireland could come out of lockdown quicker.

Boris Johnson will proceed with "extreme caution" in easing the lockdown, a Cabinet minister has said, as he warned the public not to "throw away" their hard work by going outside.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it would be "absolutely tragic" if people damaged the success social distancing has had by leaving home to enjoy the warm weather.

According to reports on Saturday night, the prime minister will announce that garden centres will be allowed to reopen their doors in the coming days and non-contact sports such as golf and fishing are to resume soon. As infection rates drop more shops will be allowed to reopen.

He will also recommend workers wear masks when they do return to work and when using public transport.

In another significant development the DUP now appears to have moved away from a London-centric approach to dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, with party insiders saying the Executive will "not be guided by London or Dublin".

Explaining what on the face of it seems like a policy shift, a senior DUP source said: "We will be led by the data that is relevant to Northern Ireland, and not be guided by London or Dublin.

"The Northern Ireland Executive has its own chief medical officer and chief scientific officer. We are going to do what's right for Northern Ireland."

Among the slight lockdown changes to be announced in Northern Ireland this week will be the re-opening of garden centres, restrictions on outdoor exercise being lifted, and encouragement for commuters to use bikes.

There are also suggestions that any foreign visitors to our airports will have to quarantine for two weeks. This will be achieved by making them fill in a digital form on which they will provide an address where they will self-isolate for the required period.

Bosses at Belfast International Airport (BIA) have expressed concern at the proposal, saying it will have a "serious effect" on their business and the wider economy.

A BIA spokeswoman said: "We have received no official confirmation on the Government's plans so we are unable to make a specific comment. However, we can confirm that Belfast International Airport has not been consulted on this move.

"We have written to government asking for clarification and outlining the serious effect this would have not only on our business but also, and more importantly, on the economy of Northern Ireland."

Irish Business Minister Heather Humphreys said on Saturday the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is not to blame for the high number of cases of Covid-19 in Co Cavan and Co Monaghan. Cavan is the county with the highest incidence of the virus in the Republic.

The coronavirus death toll in the Republic has risen to 1,446 after a further 18 deaths.

Belfast Telegraph