NI’s Covid-19 lockdown remains – but hope of ‘minor’ easing

First Minister Arlene Foster during yesterday’s Stormont coronavirus briefingFirst Minister Arlene Foster during yesterday’s Stormont coronavirus briefing
First Minister Arlene Foster during yesterday’s Stormont coronavirus briefing | Press Eye Ltd 5A Hawthorn Office Park 45 Stockmans Way Belfast BT9 7ET
The coronavirus infection rate in Northern Ireland remains too high to ease the lockdown restrictions – but some “minor” adjustments will be considered by the Stormont Executive next week, Arlene Foster has said.

The first minister also said use of face coverings in enclosed spaces, where social distancing was not possible, had been considered, and it is understood that guidance will be issued to the public.

She said specialist scientific advice from Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) had concluded “on balance” to recommend use of the coverings in those circumstances.

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However, health minister Robin Swann later clarified that the wearing of face masks “will not be mandatory”.

The ongoing closure of schools is being kept under review, but the minister in charge of education believes September is now the earliest that pupils will be back in the classroom.

Peter Weir said a “phased return” at the start of the new academic year was “extremely likely,” but couldn’t rule out a much earlier return if certain conditions were met.

The total number of known Covid-19 deaths in Northern Ireland rose by another four on Thursday and now stands at 422.

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Ministers in the power-sharing executive have agreed to extend the current regulations enforcing social distancing for a further three-week period. They also held further discussions on the region’s coronavirus recovery plan but did not finalise the blueprint. They hope to publish a plan setting out a phased recovery next week.

Commenting on the wearing of facemasks, Mr Swann said while evidence of their ability to prevent infections is “not conclusive,” on balance it is sufficient to recommend their use by members of the public them in particular circumstances.

Mr Swann added: “In practice, these circumstances will largely relate to public transport and retail environments. Crucially, face coverings must not lead to any false sense of security about the level of protection provided.”

Mrs Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said there is agreement around the Executive on the shape of the recovery plan and the decision to extend the regulations.

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The two leaders also discussed the UK-wide picture on a call with Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday afternoon.

Mrs Foster said the Province’s reproductive rate (R0) – the number of people an infected person infects – is currently at 0.8. She said that is higher than some areas in England it needs to be driven down before the Province can move to relax measures.

“It is not yet as far below one as we would like it to be,” she told the daily Covid-19 briefing at Stormont.

“Next week, we will consider a number of minor adjustments to the restrictions and indeed to their interpretation.”

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Ms O’Neill said she knew people would be “disappointed” by the announcement but she said the Province is still on a “knife-edge” in efforts to suppress the disease.

“We’re still very much in the response (stage), we’re still in the fightback against Covid-19 but we’re also in the space where we’re planning for the recovery,” she said.

She added: “That means that we’re not in a position today that we’re able to move on any of those regulations or we’re not able to relax anything at this time.”

Across the UK, the total number of known Covid-19 deaths rose by a further 539 and now stands at 30,615.

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On the NI Executive’s decision to advise the use of face coverings, Mrs Foster said the move is designed to increase community confidence.

“Now it is important to differentiate between the use of face masks manufactured for a clinical setting and face coverings which are often homemade or natural clothing items used by individuals in day-to-day life,” she said.

She predicted Boris Johnson will not shift significantly from the “stay at home” message when he makes his address on Sunday.

“I don’t think the prime minister will be moving dramatically away from that stay at home message, that is certainly what I got from him on our call today,” she said.

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Meanwhile, the teachers’ union NASUWT has said it would be “wholly premature” for the NI education minister to consider opening schools next month.

The union said teachers should have access to personal protective equipment, and those schools with significantly fewer staff available would need to ensure “stringent” social distancing.