Northern Ireland news

Executive unveils lockdown exit strategy based on scientific and medical evidence

Michelle O'Neill said exit plan was 'risk-based' and driven by health, community and economic data and analysis

THE STORMONT executive yesterday unveiled its much-anticipated plan for moving out of lockdown with Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill stressing it was "careful, cautious and hopeful".

The Pathway to Recovery strategy charts the way out of restrictions that have been place for more than two months but does not specify dates and will instead be applied according to scientific and medical evidence.

Miss O'Neill said the plan was "risk-based" and driven by health, community and economic data and analysis.

She described yesterday's signing off of the blueprint as "a day very much of hope" but insisted "we are not out of the woods".

Yesterday saw two more coronavirus-related deaths, with the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 falling by by 13 to 289 - the lowest number since October 2020.

The exit plan focuses on nine different sectoral areas, including retail, eduction and sports and leisure, each of which will emerge from lockdown in five stages. The five stages are lockdown, cautious first steps, gradual easing, further easing, and preparing for the future.

First Minister Arlene Foster said the public needed to work with the executive.

"What we've set out today is a pathway – it's not perfect, nobody is pretending it is, but I think it gives the direction of travel in terms of where we hope to get to because people do need to have optimism," the DUP leader said.

"We're asking people to work with us so we can make this the last lockdown. That's what I'm focused on, because we certainly cannot go back into a lockdown again."

The Sinn Féin deputy first minister said the executive wanted to avoid a cycle of lockdowns.

"We must do everything we can to try to make this one the last lockdown, with the underpinning insurance policy that this Executive will take the steps needed to protect the health service," she said.

"Taking all these factors together, we can take some tentative preparatory steps towards the lifting of restrictions but great care is still needed."

In what is clearly a cautious approach that appears to have united support within the executive, the plan includes provision for time between phases of relaxations that will enable the prevalence of coronavirus to assessed.

"That time will be used carefully to look at the results of the regular modelling and assess if it is safe to take the next step," Ms O'Neill said.

"Our aim is to find a safe, secure, sustainable and understandable way forward for our citizens, sectors and businesses. And we will be hopeful, optimistic and realistic in our pathway."

The deputy first minister acknowledged that the public wanted hope but that people also realised that the journey out of lockdown had to be careful.

She said a "balanced approach" approach was required and that the executive would "not be driven by hard dates".

"We recognise that everyone will be looking for certainty but we do not want to set potentially unachievable dates that will only disappoint."

Ms O'Neill said ministers would be "open and transparent" in their decision-making and that restrictions would be proportionate to the threat we face from Covid-19".

She said co-operation with the Dublin government and administrations in Britain was important, and that the plan included conditions outlined by the World Health Organisation.

The Sinn Féin deputy leader said the stay-at-home message, which is currently in place until April 1, continued to remain important.

Ministers had been due to review that policy on March 18 but that has now been brought forward to March 16.

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