Northern Ireland’s plan for easing the coronavirus lockdown is “cautious and hopeful”, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has said.
‘Moving Forward: The Executive’s Pathway Out Of Restrictions’ sets out a step-by-step approach to the relaxation of the current regulations, but unlike plans announced in England, NI’s blueprint does not include a timetable.
The document then sets out the five-step sequencing of the executive plans to gradually lift restrictions on each of those sectors.
Step one of the recovery plan represents the current lockdown restrictions in place, with steps two to four allowing an easing of the rules and the final step entitled preparing for the future. The first easements will allow changes to rules on people meeting others outdoors at their homes, changes to restrictions in places of worship and a partial return to classroom teaching. It is understood the stay-at-home message put in place at the beginning of the lockdown will also be relaxed. However, passing through each of the five phases will depend on a “range of evidence”.
There will also be a rolling review every four weeks, in line with how the regulations are currently reviewed. The next review is scheduled for 18 March.
The Executive says the steps do not have to align, and it is possible “we may be in different phases across the nine pathways at any given time”.
Ms O’Neill said the Executive’s plan, published today (March 2), would be an “underpinning insurance policy” to help protect the health service.
“We must do everything we can to try to make this one the last lockdown,” she added.
Outlining the details of the recovery document in the Stormont assembly, Ms O’Neill said ministers recognised there was still a “huge risk” with the virus, given the potential for new variants and insisted that the Executive would “not be driven by hard dates”.
“We recognise that everyone will be looking for certainty but we do not want to set potentially unachievable dates that will only disappoint.
“Each week, departments will meet as a collective to discuss the available information and to proactively consider which next steps can be proposed to the executive.
“After each step we take, we will pause and reflect, look at the data and the impacts, engage with key sectors and enable them to reopen only if it is the right thing to do.”
The Executive praised the success of the current vaccination programme, which has seen the vaccine delivered to more than 500,000 people across Northern Ireland since the beginning of December and is continuing to roll-out at speed across the adult population.
A statement from the Executive said: “We have made significant progress and there is much to be hopeful for. However, we are mindful that the Covid-19 pandemic can be highly unpredictable and the situation is complicated by the emergence of new variants, which can spread even more easily between people.
“In moving forward, we must be cautious and measured. Our flexible framework outlines nine pathways each of which has five phases detailing the level of restrictions required.
The sequencing of progress through the phases will be based on evidence, the prevailing public health situation and an assessment of impacts for people, for society and for the economy. This means that we may be in different phases across the nine pathways at any given time.”
The Executive also warned that “each step must be informed by the impact of the last relaxation on community transmission and the R number”.
The statement continued: “That’s why we believe a careful approach, taking one small step at a time and reviewing the impacts, is the best and safest way to move forward. While we understand that people want certainty, we cannot be bound by dates that would only serve to give people false hope.
“A rigorous monitor, review and implementation system has been developed to assess the impact of each phase of the relaxations and identify possible next actions.
“Businesses will rightly want time to prepare for reopening when the time is right to do so. Engagement with relevant sectors will be a core element of our four-weekly reviews, which will help to support preparations for Covid-19 safe environments.
“The first Comprehensive Formal Review will be held on 16 March and subsequent dates are 15 April, 13 May and 10 June. These should not be viewed as dates on which we will move to lift certain restrictions; rather, they are appropriate dates that have been identified to examine all relevant indicators.”