Northern Ireland news

Public urged to enjoy freedoms but be sensible

 First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at the Strand Centre Cinema in east Belfast to mark the reopening of indoor arts venues, after the latest easing of the Covid-19 rules in Northern Ireland. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Rebecca Black and Jonathan McCambridge, PA

First Minister Arlene Foster has urged the public to enjoy their new freedoms, but to be sensible.

Arlene Foster was speaking as she visited the Strand Arts Centre in east Belfast along with Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

Indoor hospitality and indoor visitor and cultural attractions were able to reopen from today, and people could meet inside private homes again, limited to six people from no more than two households.

The limit on the size of outdoor gatherings increased to 500, a move that was celebrated early today by sea swimmers returning to the coast in large groups.

Non-essential travel is permitted to Britain and a traffic light system is in place for foreign travel.

Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill met pensioners enjoying classic films as well as young people taking part in an arts and crafts workshop.

“This is a good day, we’re very pleased to have reached this point in our journey coming out of Covid restrictions and of course we’re asking people to be sensible but also to enjoy the new-found freedoms that they have today,” Ms Foster said.

Ms O’Neill added: “It’s a really positive day all round, for individuals able to meet inside, for the economy to see the doors opening up again, our gyms, to be able to come back to the cinema.

“It bodes well for a good summer for us all after a very difficult 14 months.

“We need people to adhere to the public health advice, keep being sensible, keeping our distance, washing our hands, all those things will contribute to continuing in this positive vein.”

Across Northern Ireland pub owners had smiles on their faces as they reopened their doors for the first time this year.

Dale Johnston, assistant manager of the Hillside Bar in Hillsborough, Co Down told the PA news agency: “It’s a big day for us, to have the buzz and the atmosphere of people being allowed inside again means a lot to us.

“We’re all very excited.

“It has been extremely tough as everyone in hospitality knows, it has been a dire year for us.

“It is hard for me to put into words just how difficult it has been.

“We are all in the same boat, hopefully from now forward we are moving in the right direction.”

Earlier Economy Minister Diane Dodds visited the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast.

Ms Dodds said: “It’s brilliant to see things back open fully; we have already had hospitality open to a limited degree but obviously Northern Ireland isn’t particularly suited to outdoor dining, so it’s brilliant to see everyone back into restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts, the really wide opening of hospitality and tourism.

“It’s also an enormously good day for families, where we can welcome people into our homes for the first time in many many months … and of course for sports and weddings and so on.

“It’s an enormous step forward for the Northern Ireland economy and we want to see that sustained, we want to see reopening safely and sustainably done so that we can continue to drive the economy forward.”

Ms Dodds said she is looking forward to the next major reopenings which will be the general arts and entertainment sector.

“We want to see live venues open, we want to see theatres open, we want to see that aspect of our life return to normal as well,” she said.

Grand Central Hotel general manager Stephen Meldrum said bookings have been strong, particularly for weekend breaks.

While it may be some time before the hotel can welcome international visitors back, Mr Meldrum said they understand there is huge interest in coming to Northern Ireland.

“Our sales team have been saying that the appetite for international travel is huge, particularly with the North American market who really want to get back to Northern Ireland and experience the great hospitality we have to offer,” he said.

Among the other relaxations which applied from today were on indoor group exercise is allowed again, enabling indoor sports teams to resume training.

The indoor attractions able to reopen includes museums, galleries, cinemas, indoor play areas, bowling alleys, amusement arcades, bingo halls and libraries.

With regard to indoor hospitality, people can sit at tables of six with no limit on households.

It will be table service only.

Post-wedding and civil partnership receptions can also take place.

There will be no limit on the numbers at the top table, with a limit of 10 for other tables. Dancing will be restricted to a couple’s first dance.

Under relaxations agreed at last Thursday’s Executive meeting, Stormont’s Stay Local message is also to be removed.

Schools can resume extra-curricular activities, indoor extra-curricular sports, outdoor inter-school sports and day educational visits.

No further deaths of patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were notified today although another 53 positive cases were confirmed by the Department of Health.

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