Leading article

Positive steps out of Covid lockdown but caution essential

THOUGH there is still a long way to travel, the exit from the Covid-19 restrictions which have dominated our lives since Christmas feels a step closer today.

Measures were relaxed in several important areas yesterday. Driving lessons and tests resumed, outdoor visitor attractions reopened, competitive sport returned - albeit with no spectators - and outdoor 'static' band practice is allowed.

The reopening of hairdressers and other close contact services had also been keenly anticipated, including by First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.

They joked about their own hair appointments in a good natured exchange on Thursday that will hopefully set the tone for a more positive atmosphere at Stormont.

Further significant changes are scheduled for this Friday, April 30. From then, 15 people from three different households can meet in a garden and all shops will be able to reopen.

Licensed and unlicensed premises will be able to serve customers outdoors, so long as there is a maximum of six people from two households per table.

The next significant changes - including the resumption of indoor hospitality and being allowed to have visitors inside our homes - have been given an 'indicative date' of May 24, though Mrs Foster has said ministers will consider "if we can move faster".

There is no doubt that the easing of restrictions, allied with the successful vaccination programme, is hugely positive; after long, dark months of doubt and, at times, despair, a clear path out of lockdown is starting to come into focus.

However, caution is still essential. It would be a huge mistake to lower our guard and squander the gains that have been won at great cost in recent months.

The explosion of coronavirus cases in India should serve as a stark warning of the danger the virus poses and of how quickly it can spread through the community.

Public health officials will be watching Covid case numbers and transmission rates in the coming days and weeks for evidence that the exit from lockdown is indeed being handled safely, or if restrictions need to be tightened in certain areas.

And as the Republic continues to lag behind the north in terms of vaccinations, the situation in border areas will require particular scrutiny.

Vigilance and care for the common good is needed now as much as ever to keep our family, friends and neighbours safe, and to bring the end of lockdown another step closer.

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