NI Executive set to announce dates today for easing lockdown

Plans for Northern Ireland to step out of lockdown for the first time since Christmas have been given the green light by Health Minister Robin Swann.

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 6:01 am
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 21st January 2021 A few people in Belfast City Centre which is currently locked down. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

The Northern Ireland Executive is set to meet today to decide on reopening dates for things like ‘non-essential’ shops, hairdressers and outdoor hospitality.

The opening date under consideration is understood to be April 26.

But the News Letter understands ministers are still to decide on what restrictions — if any — will be placed on the serving of alcohol in places like beer gardens.

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Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 14th April 2021 Health Minister Robin Swann pictured at a press conference at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Today’s crunch meeting comes after both the DUP and Sinn Fein signalled their intention to give “clarity” to businesses with opening dates.

Yesterday, Mr Swann said the “time is right” to ease restrictions.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill also revealed yesterday that an opening timetable spanning months will be under consideration.

Meanwhile, business groups have said the decisions made today could “make or break” thousands of struggling small firms.

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said: “This is probably the most important day since the start of the pandemic. There are thousands of small business owners and independent retails who will be watching this very closely.”

Robin Swann, speaking during a press briefing yesterday, stressed the “very significant progress” that has been made in combating coronavirus.

Ahead of a major review of the current lockdown restrictions set to take place later today, Mr Swann said: “We still have work to do on combating this virus and, while we must never be complacent, it is undoubtedly the case that very significant progress has been made.

“This is a suitable time to pay tribute to the collective determination of all the people across Northern Ireland.

“We have maintained and observed effective restrictions from Boxing Day until Easter.”

He added: “That has required remarkable commitment and incredible sacrifices. Many lives have been saved as a result. Intolerable pressures have been lifted from our health service.

“Now, we can step cautiously into a new environment.

“The scales are tipping in favour of relaxation of some of our restrictions, and being able to accelerate that process.

“This is thanks, in no small measure, to how you have all stuck to the restrictions and to the progress of our vaccination programme.”

Mr Swann also gave people some idea of the types of restrictions that could soon be lifted.

“For me, the guiding principle has to be the promotion of personal and societal wellbeing,” he said.

“Prioritising the most difficult and challenging restrictions on a phased basis.

“That includes giving people more opportunities to meet up with family and friends outdoors in as safe a way as possible.

“It should also mean getting back to the hairdressers and going back to the barbers. It should mean more businesses opening and considering even more people getting back to their caravans earlier than we’d have previously thought.

“To all those who have been bending my ear and making those asks, let me just say I have listened to you and I hear you.

“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 view will show clear signs of positivity and progress.”

The minister did, however, add a note of caution, saying: “I owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to be straight with them. Easing any lockdown measure inevitably comes with some risk.”