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Live Reporting

Tori Watson and Robin Sheeran

All times stated are UK

  1. 'Happy St Patrick's Day'


    Speaker Alex Maskey wishes everyone "Happy St Patrick's Day", and that's your lot from Stormont on what's been a dramatic day in the chamber.

    The members have a day off tomorrow, but we'll be back on Thursday morning at 09:30 with live coverage of the Health Committee.

    Do join us then.

  2. Population growth and area planning

    Peter Weir, the Education Minister, is in the chamber to respond to the discussion.

    The minister says that there is a “higher than average percentage of newcomer children in the constituency”.

    “In terms of projected growth,” the minister says it sits at around 4.8% in South Belfast.

    Peter Weir

    The minister says there is a “wide range and desire” for new capital builds, adding that he hopes there will be an opportunity for schools to apply for this later in the year.

    As for delays in area planning, the minister says the matter has not been aided by Covid-19.

  3. 'Hundreds of children get on buses to South Belfast'

    Kellie Armstrong

    Kellie Armstrong of Alliance is an MLA for Strangford.

    She says that "in the morning time you could watch literally hundreds of my constituents' children get on to buses that are going into South Belfast constituency".

    "Instead of pupils travelling and going to their nearest good school they are choosing to go to South Belfast," she adds.

  4. Hospitality calls for clarity while BMA urges caution

    Hospitality Ulster has called on the executive to be "transparent," citing a "growing concern" about historic bias against premises selling alcohol.

    It comes after the first minister announced an easement in Covid-19 restrictions at the assembly earlier today.

    Chief Executive Colin Neill said the sector needed to have "faith" in the pathway out of lockdown.

    "We have seen successful legal challenges against restrictions in England and there is growing concern within the industry that decisions against the reopening of the hospitality sector, at the same time as non-essential retail, are based on bias, particularly a historical bias against premises selling alcohol.”

    Meanwhile Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland, urged for the lifting of restrictions to be cautious and data-led.

    He said frontline workers were "exhausted after a year of battling this pandemic [and] do not want to see a fourth surge in infections".

    “The health service has a mountain to climb now in terms of restarting non-Covid care," he added.

    "With the health service workforce staffing gaps and high levels of exhaustion, brave and timely decision-making will continue to be needed from the government.”

  5. 'Every year there's the same scramble for places'

    Clare Bailey

    Clare Bailey of the Green Party says there are "somewhere in the region of 50,000 empty seats" across the schools estate.

    Yet, she says that every year she is inundated with pleas from parents of children without a post-primary place.

    "Every year we are promised that the department has a plan, that we won't be in the same position, that there will be enough places and every year there's the same scramble for places," Ms Bailey says.

  6. 'Forever delayed'

    “Manic Street Preachers brought out a best of album called 'Forever Delayed',” says Matthew O’Toole, adding that it could be used to describe this adjournment debate which has been postponed numerous times over the last number of months.

    Matthew O’Toole

    The SDLP MLA says there will be a need for more post-primary provision in areas such as BT8 due to a growth in population size.

    “The census data is going to be absolutely critical,” he adds.

  7. 'Demand for school places is not being met'

    Deirdre Hargey

    Sinn Féin's Deirdre Hargey is Minister for Communities but she's speaking from the backbenches in this debate.

    She says the demand for school places is not being met.

    "We know how many children are coming through the system each year and we need plans in place to respond to that,"Ms Hargey says.

  8. Business sector 'bitterly disappointed' at lockdown easement announcement

    Responding to the first minister's statement about the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, business groups have said they want more restrictions lifted, and soon.

    Retail NI's Glyn Roberts said the changes to coronavirus restrictions "fall very far short" of what is needed.

    He asked why the executive had been unable to give dates for reopening when indicative dates had been set elsewhere in the UK.

    "This is a bitterly disappointing decision which lets down thousands of struggling small business owners and their staff," said Mr Roberts.

    Man with closed sign

    Roger Pollen from the Federation of Small Businesses welcomed the extensions to click and collect but said the current easements were limited.

    “While these moves represent some progress, given the continued success of the vaccine programme and vast improvement in the public health situation, we wish to see greater easements in the coming weeks," he added.

  9. 'Some of the finest schools in NI'

    Christopher Stalford

    Christopher Stalford says his constituency of South Belfast contains “some of the finest schools in NI, offering some of the best educational experiences that young people can have”.

    The DUP MLA says he believes in academic selection and refers to his own “lived experience” at Wellington College.

    “It’s not for nothing that there are five different political parties that represent South Belfast in this place,” says the MLA.

  10. Adjournment debate on South Belfast schools

    As the excitement over the first minister's statement dies down, the members move to the final business of the day - an adjournment debate brought by Paula Bradshaw of Alliance on post-primary education provision in south Belfast.

    An adjournment debate allows an MLA the opportunity to bring a matter of constituency interest to the assembly for discussion at the end of the day's business. There is no vote at the end of the debate.

    Paula Bradshaw

    "I wish to argue that parental choice is essential but it is in fact severely limited in south Belfast," Ms Bradshaw says.

    She adds that there is a "lack of adequate options for those who do not sit the transfer tests or do not attain a sufficient score".

    "Options such as integrated schools and many of the selective grammars are hugely oversubscribed," Ms Bradshaw says.

  11. Swann warns against easing 'free-for-all'

    First Minister Arlene Foster has just finished answering questions at Stormont, but in the meantime we can bring you some word on Health Minister Robin Swann's view.

    He has said it is vitally important that a "free-for-all" situation is avoided in the easing of coronavirus restrictions and that he continues to recommend a gradual approach.

    Covid-19 in hospitals

    In the advisory paper, seen by BBC News NI, Mr Swann stressed that if Northern Ireland relaxed restrictions too much and too soon, "we risk squandering the progress to date".

    He said as society begins to re-open he would encourage people to spend more time outdoors and agreed "the risk is very much lower outdoor than indoors".

    Read more here.

  12. 'High Street Voucher scheme still in our plans'

    Caoimhe Archibald

    What about the High Street Voucher scheme that the executive announced a number of months ago? Will it go ahead, asks Sinn Féin’s Caoimhe Archibald.

    It was a £95m scheme that was announced by the economy minister in 2020 in a bid to boost the High Street, but was later delayed to the next financial year.

    “The High Street Voucher scheme is still very much something that we plan to do,” responds Arlene Foster.

    She says the Economy Department will decide the “best time to reinvigorate” that scheme.

  13. 'This timid Tuesday will be a disappointment to many'

    Jim Allister

    Jim Allister says he “welcomes the overdue return of our children to school, but this timid Tuesday will be a disappointment to many”.

    The TUV leader asks "if we’re still data driven, what were the targets attained today?” and “what will be the next targets?”

    Arlene Foster responds: “I wish we had’ve been able to have all children back at school before Easter.

    “These are cautious steps, I know there are some in the chamber that think they are too cautious, but we are led by advice given to us by our medical advisors."

  14. 'The voluntary and community sector are exhausted'

    Kellie Armstrong

    Kellie Armstrong of Alliance has a question about the community and voluntary sector.

    "They are exhausted," she says, adding that some have yet to receive letters with offers of funding.

    "Can we now help those who have supported us the most during this pandemic and make sure that they are aware when they can get back because they will be providing the community with mental health support that we have really missed?" Ms Armstrong asks.

    The first minister says the sector "have been absolute heroes in many communities across NI".

    She says that if Ms Armstrong has examples of organisations that have not had letters regarding funding she should let her know.

  15. Pupils returning 'immediately face stressful exams'

    The first minister says testing will give students "something to move forward with".

    UUP MLA Robbie Butler says there has been "inflexibility" around of academic selection and that GCSE and A-level pupils are now faced with "the threat of having to sit stressful exams".

    He also refers to "inflexibility" around transfer tests.

    In response, Arlene Foster says the executive has tried to prioritise children in its decision-making.

    "We have to find some way of finding academic achievement for those young people who have spent so long building up to the years 12 and 14.

    "It’s very important that we recognise the challenges for teachers and for pupils but at the same allow them to do those testing processes so that they can have something to move forward with, I think that’s very important for their life chances as well."

  16. 'Walking along a golf course is the same as being out for a walk'

    Is golf included in the easement of outdoor sporting restrictions?

    That’s the question from Karen Mullan of Sinn Féin.

    She also wants to know when driving tests might resume.

    First Minister Arlene Foster responds that “it’s good news” as golf can resume.

    driving test

    “Walking along a golf course is the same as being out for a walk, but those who play golf will probably disagree with that,” quips the DUP leader.

    It is, however, a no for the resumption of driving tests.

    “It is deemed to be a close-contact service,” says the first minister, adding that it is on the executive’s agenda as it is something that particularly affects a lot of young people.

  17. 'Flexibility in the pathway' out of lockdown

    Pam Cameron

    “This is an incredibly difficult time with such an extended period of lockdown,” says Pam Cameron. She asks her DUP party leader if further lifting of the restrictions will have to wait until 15 April, which will be the next formal review.

    “There is flexibility in the pathway to allow us to take decisions outside of those formal review dates,” responds Arlene Foster.

    Lockdown “has been both physically and mentally” difficult for people, says the first minister.

  18. 'We are all concerned about crowds over Easter'

    Stewart Dickson

    "You're suggesting in this statement today that we're moving from staying at home to staying local. How will you get a very clear message out to people as to how that should be handled, particularly over the Easter holidays?" asks Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson.

    The first minister says "the stay at home message is still in place until 12 April, so it's important to say that because we are all concerned about the Easter holidays".

    She explains that there are concerns about crowds forming over that period

  19. 30,000 vaccine bookings in three hours on Monday

    Up to 350 people a minute were booking in for their Covid-19 vaccine yesterday, the first minister says.

    Vaccinations have now opened up to the over 50s.

    Asked by Sinn Féin MLA Colm Gildernew how "crucial" the vaccination programme had been in allowing for some restrictions to be lifted, Arlene Foster says work is underway to see what impact the rollout was having on hospital admissions.

    Covid-19 vaccine

    "Yesterday was a phenomenal piece of booking online. The health minister tells us that at one point it was 350 people-per-minute that were actually taking up the slots so that's a good indicator that people are very much wanting to avail of the vaccine."

    In the first three hours of the slots opening for people aged over 50, 30,000 people had booked vaccines, she says.

  20. 'I accept these changes are modest'

    With the first minister's statement now over, SDLP MLA Colin McGrath is the first to ask a question - he says schools have been given little time to prepare for the return of their students.

    "The announcement being made today could also be accused of being a little bit light touch.

    "The moves are modest and in many areas they're not budging for another two weeks and some further into April.

    "For many in businesses and sporting fraternities they're left wondering again when progression will be made."

    Colin McGrath

    In response, First Minister Arlene Foster says there is "no denying" that this lockdown has been long.

    "I also accept that these are modest lifting of restrictions - nobody said this would be otherwise.

    "No doubt there would be some who would like to criticise the executive. So be it, we're big boys and girls."

    On the subject of whether schools had been given enough notice, she says "I think it has been well signalled that the education minister wanted students to be back as quickly as possible.

    "We've been talking about this for quite some considerable time."