COVID19: Three more deaths as NI prepares to ease lockdown

By David Young, PA

A further three people who have tested positive for coronavirus have died in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Health's recorded toll of deaths, most of which occurred in hospitals, rose to 476 on Sunday.

The true total in the region will be larger, once fatalities registered in the community are factored in.

A technical issue with the department's reporting system meant the latest numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases were not announced on Sunday along with the fatalities.

On Saturday, the total of confirmed positive results in the region stood at 4,357.

The three latest deaths were announced hours before some lockdown restrictions will be lifted in Northern Ireland.

Garden centres and household recycling facilities will reopen on Monday.

Angling will also be permitted, as will marriages involving someone with a terminal illness.

Stormont's leaders are expected to announce a series of other relaxations on Monday afternoon, with the region expected to formally move to phase one of its five-step exit plan.

Outdoor gatherings of four to six people from outside the same household are expected to be given the go-ahead, as is the reopening of churches for solitary prayer and drive-in services.

On Sunday, two senior church leaders cast doubt on whether drive-in services would materialise.

The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Eamon Martin, said he did not think Catholic churches would be considering the option in "any serious way".

He told BBC Radio Ulster: "It really wouldn't be something that would be part of the Catholic tradition".

Church of Ireland Archbishop John McDowell said people may prefer to watch services online than sitting in cars in a church car park.

Golf and tennis could also be given the green light in the coming week.

Stormont ministers will meet on Monday to discuss the latest moves ahead of an anticipated statement by First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.

They were informed by their chief scientific and medical advisers on Thursday that it was now appropriate to move to phase one of the plan.

Ministers were told that the infection rate (R0) was below 0.7.

The R0, which is the number of people an infected person transmits the disease to, is a crucial consideration in any decision to ease restrictions.

An R0 below one means the virus's prevalence is gradually decreasing, while a number above one would result in exponential growth.

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