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Arlene Foster vows that current lockdown will be Northern Ireland's last

The powersharing administration faced criticism for not attaching dates to its pathway to recovery.

Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster at today's announcement.
Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster at today's announcement.
Image: PA Images

Updated Mar 2nd 2021, 9:45 PM

STORMONT’S FIRST MINISTER has vowed that Northern Ireland must never return to lockdown after a cautious plan to ease restrictions was published.

The powersharing administration Arlene Foster helps lead has outlined its pathway to recovery, but faced criticism for not attaching dates to it.

The country has faced restrictions since Christmas.

Foster said: “We are asking people to work with us so that we can make this the last lock down.

That is what I am focused on because we certainly cannot go back into a lock down again.

Ministers’ blueprint to reopen society focused on nine areas like retail, hospitality and education.

Each will emerge from cold storage in stages.

ni-1 Source: NI Executive

The document does not include any target dates and ministers have promised decisions on moving between stages will be based on scientific and medical evidence, not the calendar.

During the pandemic, ministers from a newly-formed five-party coalition have co-operated, but there has been political disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein over education and potential breaches of the rules on social gatherings at republican funerals.

Foster said the Pathway to Recovery plan, agreed by all ministers, was a direction of travel and would help encourage optimism.

She added: “The evenings are getting brighter now, I know people are looking to get rid of these restrictions.

Certainly there is a lot of frustration out there.

Stormont Executive ministers signed off on the strategy earlier today.

It focuses on nine key areas – retail, hospitality, education and young people, work, culture, heritage and entertainment, sports and leisure, travel and tourism, worship and ceremonies, home and community.

The stages of restriction begin with lockdown then extend to cautious first steps, gradual easing, further easing, and preparing for the future.

Delivering the plan to the Stormont Assembly, the deputy First Minister said the region would turn a corner in the battle against Covid-19 in 2021.

Michelle O’Neill said: “This is a day very much of hope.”

She said the executive wanted to avoid a cycle of repeated lockdowns.

“We must do everything we can to try to make this one the last lockdown, with the underpinning insurance policy that this executive will take the steps needed to protect the health service,” she said.

“Taking all these factors together, we can take some tentative preparatory steps towards the lifting of restrictions. But great care is still needed.

That is why the executive has agreed today a careful, cautious and hopeful approach to existing restrictions.

O’Neill said the plan built in time between phases of relaxations to provide space to examine evidence on the prevalence of the virus.

Critics like the fringe Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party leader Jim Allister have said the ministers’ pathway does not tell parents when they can return all children to school permanently or allow them to attend sports clubs.

ni-2 Source: NI Executive

Under the executive’s plan, P1 to P3 primary school children will return to school on 8 March. Foster said ministers would review education on March 16.

She added: “I hope, given all of the data that is there, that that will mean that everyone can return after Easter.”

Allister said: “We have been given a cliche-ridden algorithm for dither.

“It is not much of a satnav if it does not tell you the route or when you expect to get there.”

Business reaction

Some businesses have expressed frustration at the lack of dates and timelines in Stormont’s plan.

Many voiced concern at the continued lack of certainty on when they can reopen.

Retail NI, which represents small retailers, said the plan “falls far short of what is needed for a viable road map”.

Chief executive Glyn Roberts said: “It lacks detail, contains vague criteria for moving between the steps/phases and gives no certainty for retailers to plan ahead for reopening.

Accepting that exact dates were not going to be in the document, the very least that could have been included should have been broad timelines to give retailers some idea of the next steps.

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“While this document is disappointing, we will work with the Executive to ensure that our entire retail sector is reopened. We believe that non-essential retail, with the right preparation, can reopen at some point next month.”

Hospitality Ulster said many of their members feared their businesses would not survive to see reopening.

Colin Neill, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “We welcome the activity undertaken by the Executive so far in bringing forward this road map. However, it has been some time in coming and disappointing to see that parts of hospitality have been earmarked to reopen after non-essential retail and with no mention of an additional support package.

There is a genuine fear amongst many in our sector that businesses are going to fail and jobs will be lost at the eleventh hour.

“We are really frustrated that this pathway shows no dates whatsoever and once again singles out our traditional pubs for extended closure. How are our pubs supposed to survive, and the industry plan for the re-emergence of the entire sector?”

Two more people have died with Covid-19, the Department of Health said today. A further 149 new cases of the virus have also been confirmed.

As of this morning, a total of 289 hospital beds were occupied by Covid-19 patients, 34 of whom were in intensive care.

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