Covid relaxations signal brighter days ahead
FOLLOWING a long, difficult winter dominated by Covid-19 restrictions, there is a feeling that brighter days are ahead after the Stormont Executive agreed a package of lockdown relaxations.
The executive's Pathway out of Restrictions plan faced criticism because it did not propose dates, with ministers reasoning that they would take a 'data-led' approach instead.
However, yesterday's welcome announcement included dates and a long list of easements.
To the relief of many, this includes the reopening of hairdressers from next Friday.
The following Friday, April 30, will be a landmark day: all retail can resume; pubs, restaurants and cafes will be able to serve outside groups of six from two households; gyms can reopen; and, in an important move, up to 15 people from three households will be able to gather in a garden.
At this stage, May 24 is being considered for the reopening of indoor hospitality and for hotels to welcome guests. 'Domestic mixing' inside homes may also be allowed from then.
Some will argue that the data has supported relaxing restrictions for some time, pointing to steps already taken in Britain, where many of the key Covid indicators are broadly similar to those prevailing in Northern Ireland.
This includes the success of the vaccine programme and declines in the numbers of deaths and patients requiring hospital treatment.
This positive picture also reflects the willingness of the public to comply with the onerous restrictions, acting for the common good to protect their family, friends and neighbours.
Caution is still essential. The risk of Covid-19 variants that may render the vaccines less effective, as well as the need to fully complete the vaccination programme itself, are among the reasons why a return to a pre-pandemic 'normal' remains some way off. A further fall in cases would be welcome.
The slow pace of the Republic's vaccine programme is a cause for concern and has implications for the north, especially in border areas.
As lockdown eases, the public health authorities will be especially alert to the data in areas like Derry and Strabane, where cases spiked when restrictions were relaxed last year.
There will inevitably be anomalies in the relaxations. The executive must ensure that appropriate supports are offered to those businesses unable to yet plan for reopening.
It needs to also clearly communicate the changes, so that the public can continue to play its part in a safe exit from lockdown.