With most retailers having been allowed to open from last Friday, the Executive has now moved to bring forward the reopening of hotels and other tourist accommodation, as well as restaurants and pubs serving food or with outdoor space, to July 3.
That announcement came just hours after the Department of Health issued a fresh warning that the vast majority of the population have still not been exposed to coronavirus and a second wave of the virus could see the health service crippled.
Nevertheless, the DUP and Sinn Fein – who for weeks at the outset of the pandemic were at variance, with Sinn Fein claiming that those pushing to ease restrictions were putting cash ahead of lives – yesterday appeared united in pressing ahead with more relaxations to the restrictions.
The sudden change in Stormont’s approach to easing lockdown appears to have coincided with the Republic of Ireland suddenly deciding to accelerate its dates for easing restrictions, although Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill insist they are not following Dublin for political reasons.
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Yesterday’s Executive decision means that from June 26, caravan parks, campsites and self-contained tourist accommodation will be able to reopen. A week later on July 3, hotels, restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, pubs and bars will be able to get back to business.
Indoor pubs and bars opening on that date will have to primarily function as restaurants and offer substantial meals with table service.
The food rule does not apply to alcohol being served outside in beer gardens, though table service is again compulsory.
Museums and galleries can also reopen on July 3, but hotel leisure and spa facilities will have to remain closed.
First Minister Arlene Foster stressed that the dates were conditional on the virus continuing to be contained.
She also said that the Executive had decided to allow two full households to come together in each other’s homes – but that a date for that would not be announced for about two weeks.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she hoped the idea of more contact between households – even though there is not yet even an indicative date for when it will happen – will “give people something to look forward to”.
Mrs Foster said that the definition of key workers who can avail of childcare would be extended to include retail workers, construction workers and those working in manufacturing.
She also said that there would be “a gradual increase in the number of families child minders are permitted to provide childcare for over the coming months” and that there would be more discussion of childcare at Thursday’s Executive meeting.
Ms O’Neill said that childcare was “central”, “must be prioritised and progressed”, and that “we need to urgently implement a recovery strategy for childcare that focuses on need”.
Mrs Foster denied that the issue had been forgotten and insisted that it was “absolutely a priority” for the Executive and “at the top of our agenda”.
However, Ms O’Neill gave no indication of why the administration which she jointly leads has not yet done so but said that Executive departments are “urgently” working to do so.
She suggested that later this week they may announce “indicative dates” for other sectors such as hairdressers, but there is still not even a hint as to how far off the resumption of such businesses will be.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson has been among those critical of Stormont for not moving faster to ease restrictions.
Mrs Foster said that the reopening plan was endorsed by the Chief Medical Officer, Michael McBride, and the Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Ian Young. She added: “I know there are a lot of people who would like us to move faster. But I also get emails from people who are worried and who want us to move in a slower fashion.”
Mrs Foster also said that a ‘working group on the gradual reopening of places of worship’ will have its first meeting tomorrow.
No decision has been made by the Executive on whether to reduce the social distancing measure in Northern Ireland from two metres to one, a move the hospitality sector has been demanding and which is also under consideration in London and Dublin.
Northern Ireland again recorded no further coronavirus deaths yesterday, the sixth occasion in the last nine days, as did the Republic of Ireland, meaning that for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic there has been a day without any deaths being recorded on the island of Ireland.
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