Northern Ireland news

Stormont ministers set to sign off on lockdown exit plan today

Ministers are meeting this morning to review the final version of the much anticipated strategy
David Young and Michael McHugh, PA

Stormont ministers met for an hour on Tuesday morning to review Northern Ireland’s lockdown exit plan.

They have asked officials to make some further minor amendments to the plan and are scheduled to reconvene at 12.30pm.

It is anticipated the strategy will be signed off at that point.

It will then be outlined to the Assembly in mid afternoon.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill is later expected to unveil the document on the floor of the Assembly in Belfast on behalf of her and First Minister Arlene Foster.

It is understood the plan focuses on nine key areas – retail; hospitality; education and young people; work; culture, heritage and entertainment; sports and leisure; travel and tourism; worship and ceremonies; home and community.

Each will emerge from lockdown in stages. It is understood the stages are lockdown; cautious first steps; gradual easing; further easing; and preparing for the future.

Ministers have already made clear the blueprint will be led by data, not dates, with decisions on when to move between stages based on scientific and medical data, not the calendar.

Keeping the reproductive rate of the virus below 1 will be a guiding principle.

The Executive will review the progress of the pathway at set points, understood to be every four weeks.

The PA news agency understands that the plan will state: “Progress through the phases will be based on a range of evidence and will seek to balance the benefits for us with the potential impact on the transmission of the virus.

“This means we may be in different phases across the nine pathways at any given time.”

Ministers met yesterday to examine the plan and asked officials to bring more clarity to some specific areas ahead of today’s meeting of the devolved administration.

Northern Ireland’s lockdown and accompanying stay-at-home message is currently in place until April 1. Ministers are due to review that policy on March 18.

The executive has already outlined plans for a phased return of face-to-face learning at schools.

Only vulnerable children and those of key workers have been attending classes in mainstream schools since January.

P1 to P3 primary school children will return to school on March 8, and on March 22 secondary school children in key exam years – years 12-14 – will go back to class.

On that same date, the P1 to P3s are currently due to revert to home learning for one week ahead of the Easter holidays – to mitigate the impact on infection rates of the secondary school cohort’s return.

However, officials from the departments of health and education were asked last week to examine that aspect of the plan and Ms Foster has expressed hope that those primary pupils will ultimately be able to remain in school that week.

No date has so far been given for the return of the wider school population.

Covid-19 vaccinations have been extended to people aged 60-64 in Northern Ireland.

Those eligible are urged to book online for appointments at health trust mass vaccination centres, the Department of Health said.

More than half a million doses of coronavirus vaccine have been administered in Northern Ireland.

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