Coronavirus: Stormont ministers to consider more lockdown easing

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At the moment, people in Northern Ireland can only meet up outdoors and must stay 2m (6ft) apart

The executive will meet later on Thursday to discuss whether more lockdown restrictions in NI can be lifted.

Small shops are due to open on Friday but there is no date yet for shopping centres to reopen.

Ministers are also likely to look at the possibility of letting people have more contact with family and friends.

They are expected to discuss the “social bubble” concept, used successfully in New Zealand.

On Monday, First Minister Arlene Foster said she regretted that the executive has not been able to allow people to visit others indoors yet.

The measure is the only element included in step one of the Pathway to Recovery blueprint that has not been implemented and has been deferred several times.

What else will the executive discuss?

Ministers have moved from the response phase of the pandemic to the recovery phase, and their meeting is expected to focus on a strategic overview for helping all sectors to regain some sense of normality.

As parts of the retail sector prepare to open on Friday, so long as the transmission of the virus has remained low, ministers will also discuss whether shopping centres should be given a date to reopen.

However, concerns have been raised about a lack of clear guidance for the childcare sector, as more people with children prepare to return to work.

The executive will also discuss that issue and Department of Health panels are expected to meet on Thursday to assess when certain childcare centres can open.

It is understood Agriculture and Environment Minister Edwin Poots intends to raise the issue of restrictions on numbers of people permitted to attend funerals – currently limited to 10.

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Stormont ministers are facing pressure to name a reopening date for all retailers

Ministers are also likely to discuss bringing forward the date for hotels and hospitality businesses to reopen in Northern Ireland.

In the Republic of Ireland, the industry has been given a date of 29 June to reopen.

The executive has said hotels can reopen in Northern Ireland from 20 July, but no date has been announced for pubs or restaurants yet.

On Monday, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon brought a paper to the executive about whether face coverings on public transport should be made mandatory.

In England, the measure will take effect from 15 June.

While face coverings are recommended in Northern Ireland on public transport and in shops where social distancing is not possible, the Stormont executive has not yet taken a decision on whether to make it compulsory.

What is the social bubble model?

A bubble is defined as an exclusive group of people with whom you have close physical contact, this can be friends or family.

Members of a bubble would be able to visit one another in their homes, but it would still be important to limit the risk of chains of transmission.

If Household A merges with Household B, Household B could not also link up with another group – Household C – because this would create a chain that could allow the virus to spread widely.

The bubble concept has already been used in New Zealand and is now being adopted in England, where from Saturday, single adults can spend the night at another house in a “support bubble”.

Stormont ministers have asked health officials for advice on whether the measure could be adopted in Northern Ireland.

Why does the R-number matter?

The executive has warned that people’s behaviour over the next few weeks will determine whether lockdown-easing steps continue, are halted, or are reversed, depending on how the R value is affected.

The R-number, or reproduction number, is the average number of people that one coronavirus-infected person will pass the virus on to.

Last week, the Department of Health said it estimated the R-number in Northern Ireland is currently between 0.7 and 0.9, enabling ministers to move ahead with lifting some restrictions.

It will publish the R-number every Thursday.


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