Coronavirus: No more changes to NI lockdown restrictions yet

By Gareth Gordon
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

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What does the ease in restrictions mean for people in Northern Ireland?

Stormont ministers have decided there will not be any further changes yet to lockdown measures in Northern Ireland.

The executive met on Thursday to discuss its response to easing restrictions.

Earlier this week, Arlene Foster said ministers would revisit whether relatives who do not live together could meet indoors.

It is included in step one of the recovery plan, but the executive has not agreed to allow it to go ahead.

Their decision comes as a further seven Covid-19 related deaths have been recorded by Northern Ireland's Department of Health, bringing its total to 501.

Three of the deaths happened since Wednesday, four other deaths happened earlier but have only now been added to the department's total.

The daily numbers mostly reflect hospital deaths, but weekly figures released by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency cover all fatalities where coronavirus has been recorded on the death certificate.

The latest figures on the department's dashboard show a further 42 confirmed positive cases of the virus, bringing that total to 4,481.

Coronavirus in Northern Ireland. .  .

Last week, the executive published its five-phase blueprint for recovery in Northern Ireland, but this did not have a firm timetable, unlike the roadmap in the Republic of Ireland.

Coronavirus deaths in Northern Ireland. .  .

On Thursday, the Irish Department of Health announced there had been a further 12 deaths related to Covid-19, bringing the country's total to 1,583.

It added that the country has had six consecutive days with under 100 new cases.

Groups of up to six people can meet outdoors in Northern Ireland, so long as they are socially distancing.

Ministers have maintained that not all aspects of each step will be implemented at the same time, and will depend on keeping the R-value - or reproduction number - as low as possible.

Why does the R-number matter?

R refers to the average number of people that someone with Covid-19 is expected to infect after contracting the virus: The goal is to keep R under one.

Northern Ireland's R-rate is currently between 0.7 and 0.8, according to Health Minister Robin Swann.

He has said plans are in place to publish the figure on a weekly basis, to show trends in line with some lockdown measures being lifted.

Prof Ian Young, the executive's Chief Scientific Adviser, has said there are a number of other factors that officials are looking at, as well as the R-rate.

He cited the number of daily new cases needing to be low, so that contact tracing, testing and isolating can work properly.

The number of hospital admissions and critical care patients is being closely monitored as well, to ensure the R-number is kept low, before any further restrictions are lifted.

In other developments on Thursday:

On Monday, the executive agreed churches and places of worship would reopen for private prayer and outdoor activities that did not involve shared contact with hard surfaces - such as golf, water sports and tennis - would be permitted.

Drive-in cinemas and drive-in music events are also now permitted.

Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Drive-in church services are now allowed, in line with social distancing and public hygiene guidelines

But the first minister said scientific advice provided to the executive suggested indoor visits were "too risky".

The executive has also said it will revisit whether "very small" weddings could soon be permitted.

Ministers have stressed that people must continue to wash their hands and keep their distance when they are taking part in any of the activities that are now permitted, under the terms of the regulations.