Executive expected to agree a timetable for lifting the lockdown

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Parliament Buildings, Stormont

By Q Radio News

Stormont ministers are expected to agree a timetable for reopening society in Northern Ireland that will cover several months when they meet on Thursday, Michelle O’Neill has said.

The powersharing executive in Belfast has faced criticism for not incorporating indicative dates into its blueprint for exiting Covid-19 lockdown.

First Minister Arlene Foster has already expressed hope that opening dates for close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, and non-essential retail will be announced after the meeting.

The hospitality sector is also hopeful that it might get some good news tomorrow, particularly in respect of outdoor trading.

The deputy First Minister told her Assembly scrutiny committee she thought she and First Minister Arlene Foster would be making a “very hopeful and positive announcement” on Thursday.

“Myself and Arlene have been speaking with officials for some time saying that we wanted to see dates put to this (the lockdown exit plan),” she told the Executive Office committee.

“So I’m glad that now, I’m hopeful actually that tomorrow the Executive will be able to sign off on dates on what it look likes for the next number of months.”

Ms O’Neill said given recent events in the region, an apparent reference to bouts of street disorder that have flared this month, it was important to give people “something to look forward to in the weeks and months ahead”.

But she added: “We think we’ll have a very hopeful and positive announcement to make tomorrow.”

Health Minister Robin Swann.

Health minister Robin Swann has said the “scales are tipping in favour of relaxing” some of the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Swann also said there is a possibility of “accelerating that process”.

“Covid fatigue risks itself mutating into Covid despair,” he said.

“Frustration is growing and, if unchecked, it may impact on adherence with public health advice, I don’t want to see that, the people working in our health service don’t want to see, as we know the consequences.

“We must avoid that because continuing to follow that advice will allow us all to do more.

“I believe that the time is now right for the Executive to proceed with further easing of restrictions, including some indicative dates to let people and businesses look ahead with greater optimism.”

Mr Swann said he wants people to have more opportunities to meet up with family and friends outdoors in as safe a way as possible.

“It should also mean getting the hairdressers and barbers back to work, as should it mean more businesses opening and considering even people getting back to their caravans earlier than we would have thought feasible only a short time ago,” he said.

“I can confirm that my department has now fed into the central process and whilst I will not pre-empt any decisions ahead of tomorrow’s Executive, I do hope the agreed review will show clear signs of positivity after it.”

Mr Swann also sounded some notes of caution.

He said easing any lockdown measure inevitably comes with some risks, and as people mix more the virus will spread more.

“That’s how serious this still is. Against that, of course, we also cannot stay in lockdown forever. That would be catastrophic for our society, not least in terms of our physical and mental well-being,” he said.

“We have to remain careful and vigilant. We have to do our best to strike the correct balance. That remains extremely difficult.

“It’s a matter of public record that the Government advisory group Sage has warned of a potential fresh Covid surge later in the year.

“Of course, we now have the Covid vaccines as our additional line of defence. It is essential that we maintain our momentum with the vaccination programme. Please get the jab when it’s your turn. Encourage your friends and relatives to do the same.

“Vaccines are our best defence and shield against Covid.”

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