Northern Ireland news

Groups of 30 to be allowed to meet outdoors as coronavirus lockdown restrictions further eased

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at Stormont today, June 29 2920. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire 
Rebecca Black and Michael McHugh, PA

The number of people permitted to meet outdoors in Northern Ireland will increase from 10 to 30 under the latest relaxation of lockdown rules.

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill made the announcement following a meeting of the Stormont Executive.

Mrs Foster said today that health minister Robin Swann would lay regulations on the issue on Monday July 6.

The rules around indoor meetings will remain at a maximum of six people.

In the coming weeks, hotels, bars servings food, restaurants, coffee shops, attractions, hair salons and gyms are set to reopen.

However, Ms Foster warned that this is "not business as usual".

"While we have managed to suppress the spread of the virus here in Northern Ireland, it has not been beaten and while the hunt for a vaccine continues and while the rate of infection remains under control, we cannot assume that that will always be the case," she said.

There had been speculation that making the wearing of face coverings mandatory on public transport was also to be discussed but it emerged that legal advice is being sought. Read more

Ms Foster said she expected it would be discussed at Thursday July 2's meeting of the Executive.

"The current position of the Executive is that we strongly recommend that people wear face coverings in enclosed settings such as public transport or other small areas," she said.

"The infrastructure minister wants us to consider an issue around mandatory face coverings on public transport and we are currently taking legal advice on that issue."

Ms O'Neill added: "I don't think there is any resistance to the issue."

Both urged those mourning the death of veteran republican Bobby Storey to observe social distancing.

Ms O'Neill said: "Everyone who is attending the funeral should observe the public health advice, socially distance, stay apart and follow the regulations."

Ms Foster added: "It is important that people do stick to the public health regulation and respect the fact that we are still in a situation where Covid-19 could be spread.

"That is of concern to us when we see what is happening currently in Leicester for example and the fact there seems to be a spike there."

Meanwhile today, as worshippers returned to church services for the first time in 15 weeks, the Catholic archbishop hailed a "day of joy".

Archbishop Eamon Martin paid tribute to healthcare workers who served the sick and parishioners who volunteered to carry groceries and other essentials to those living alone.

He celebrated the first public Mass in St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh since the coronavirus lockdown began in March.

The archbishop said: "The past three-and-a-half months of lockdown marked a time of great uncertainty and anxiety.

"We had to make sacrifices for the common good and to protect life and health."

The numbers attending services will be "substantially" reduced to enable social distancing, the Primate of All Ireland said.

Every other pew was roped off and empty as Mass was celebrated, and the archbishop wore a face covering as he distributed communion bread.

He said: "It is such a joy to gather physically for Mass today, as well as to join virtually with many others who are participating over webcam."

The archbishop added: "Some of our liturgical customs have also been adjusted to take account of health recommendations.

"I appeal to you therefore to be patient and understanding, and to cooperate in helping us fulfil our church guidelines."

One more Covid-19 related death was reported today, and the total toll recorded by the Department of Health is 551.

Other changes to Northern Ireland's lockdown taking effect today mean elite athletes can train indoors and contact sport training can resume, while childminders can care for the children of four families at one time.

The return of film fans to the big screen is likely to be slow and cautious, a cinema owner has said.

Cinemas across Northern Ireland have been given an indicative opening date of July 29 by the Stormont Executive.

Michael McAdam, owner of Movie House Cinemas, said: "It's going to be a slow start, people aren't going to be running out straight away, they are going to be cautious and we are going to be cautious ourselves in getting our staff trained up, so it is going to take us a while.

"A nice gentle recovery would be perfect for us."

One-way pedestrian routes in busy public spaces could aid social distancing, guidance published by the Communities Department said. Read more

Northern Ireland has become the first part of the UK to move from a two-metre to a one-metre guideline, with some conditions.

Bus stops may be relocated to areas where they can better accommodate safe queuing, according to information published by Caral Ni Chuilin's department.

Stewards and extra staff could manage multiple lines for different businesses, official guidance for owners and operators of town and city centres such as councils and landlords added.

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