IT’S OFFICIAL: Most NI coronavirus restrictions to end on Thursday

Large parts of Northern Irish high streets and most of the hospitality industry can reopen next Friday, the Executive has decided.

First Minister Arlene Foster
First Minister Arlene Foster

But while many “non-essential” retailers will heave a sigh of relief at being allowed some pre-Christmas trading to shore up a dismal advent, so-called wet pubs will have to remain closed.

The decision to keep the bars shut while other traders will open up next Friday will stir “disappointment and anger” among publicans, said former DUP finance minister Simon Hamilton, who now heads up the Belfast Chamber of Commerce.

There will be some respite too for churchgoers; places of worship will be able to open once again as part of the relaxation of rules.

Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster said this evening: “Most of the restrictions will come to an end next Thursday.

“Non-essential retail will open again, our hotels and restaurants will open again.

“Unfortunately those pubs known as wet pubs, which only serve alcohol, they will not reopen.”

There were rumours that these moves were on the cards all throughout today.

But it was not until after 7pm tonight that Executive leaders Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill confirmed some of the details in a press conference at Stormont.

No Stormont ministers could be reached this evening for further clarification on the plans.

In the absence of any detailed official statement, based on what was said by the two leaders at the briefing the changes are as follows:

> Non-essential retailers can reopen next Friday when the two-week “circuit-breaker” lockdown ends;

> Businesses such as restaurants, cafes, and hotels can open but must close at 11pm;

> Pubs that do not serve food (“wet pubs”) will have to remain closed;

> Social distancing of two metres is to be maintained in hospitality businesses (although Ms O’Neill said this was “to be encouraged”, leaving a question about whether it will be mandatory);

> Churches will reopen again, funerals and weddings will see relaxation of the rules, and gyms are also set to reopen (reportedly for individual exercise only, but this was not officially confirmed).

In addition to those changes, sporting events will be allowed to host spectators again, with a maximum of 500 people present (with some exclusions surrounding schools).

According to the BBC, close-contact services like hairdressers, beauty salons and barbers can reopen too (by appointment only).

In addition, Ms O’Neill gave more details for plans during the five days of Christmas when restrictions on socialising will be relaxed.

She said: “Three households can come together, one of those households can bring their bubble.”

A bubble is formed when two households have linked into a support network during the pandemic.

There was no mention of rule changes on masks.

Belfast Chamber chief executive Mr Hamilton said: “Confirmation that ‘non-essential’ retailers and close-contact services, along with most of the hospitality sector, can reopen and start trading again on December 11 is welcome news and will, on the whole, prove positive for jobs and the economy.

“Traditional drink-only pubs will be understandably disappointed and angry that, once again, they remain unable to reopen.

“Belfast’s bars are a huge cultural, tourism and community asset and need increased Executive support to survive.

“Protecting lives and livelihoods is vitally important. It is crucial that everyone continues to follow the ‘hands, face, space’ and other guidance in the coming weeks to avoid another damaging lockdown in the early new year.”

Retail NI’s chief executive Glyn Roberts likewise welcomed the news, adding: “In saying that, these retailers will struggle to make up the losses from the two-week circuit breaker in the last few weeks of Christmas shopping.

“In these vital few weeks of Christmas shopping we urge shoppers to make it their civic duty to support independent retailers as many of them are struggling to survive and desperately need the trade.”

Such sentiments were echoed by fellow lobbyist Aodhan Connolly, of the NI Retail Consortium, who said the happy news that “non-essential” traders can get back to work “won’t make up for the loss of two weeks trading during what is our golden quarter, especially when retailers were already feeling the squeeze”.

As members of the Executive deliberated today on the next steps, prior to their evening announcement, a Co Down restaurateur described the behaviour of the Executive as “farcical”.

Ian Clyde, owner of Bronte Steakhouse, Banbridge, noted the political leaders’ previous failure to make timely decisions about Covid restrictions, saying that the best they could really hope for at this stage is to “partly save our Christmas”.

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Alistair Bushe