Coronavirus: 1m distancing is possible in NI from Monday

Two metres signImage source, AFP
Image caption,
Rules on social distancing are changing in Northern Ireland

The Stormont Executive has agreed to reduce social distancing in Northern Ireland from 2m (6ft) to 1m with restrictions from Monday, Arlene Foster has confirmed.

It comes days after the prime minister said England would move to "1m plus" on 4 July, as its lockdown is eased.

The proposal was brought to the executive by Economy Minister Diane Dodds.

The first minister said hospitality businesses must uphold safety.

The Stormont Executive agreed that people should keep two metres distance where possible, but from 29 June can come within no less than one metre where appropriate mitigations can be made.

Mrs Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill also announced a series of other indicative dates for businesses and public facilities to reopen as lockdown is further eased in Northern Ireland.

They include:

  • Betting shops from 3 July;
  • Close contact services like spas and massage; tattoo parlours, holistic therapies and reflexology from 6 July;
  • Indoor gyms and outdoor playgrounds from 10 July;
  • Libraries from 16 July;
  • The resumption of competitive sport from 17 July - with "limited numbers" of outdoor spectators, to be increased from 31 July;
  • Bingo halls and arcades from 29 July;
  • Other seated indoor venues such as cinemas and theatres from 29 July;
  • Indoor sports courts and skating rinks from 7 August;
  • Leisure centres and soft play areas from 7 August;
  • Socially-distanced indoor spectators can return to sporting events from 28 August;
  • Open air museums from late-August.

In relation to the 1m move, members of the hospitality industry had argued it was necessary to help them restart their businesses.

Hotels, pubs, restaurants and cafes are due to reopen in Northern Ireland on 3 July.

"The reason why we believe we can move to 1m is in relation to having other mitigations in place to manage that risk," the first minister told the daily executive press conference.

"Nothing is risk-free and it is important the hospitality and tourism sectors work with us."

Ms O'Neill said caution was "imperative".

"We may need to amend these dates and the executive is prepared to step back if the need arises," she added.

The Stormont Executive has not yet made a decision on whether to make face coverings compulsory on all public transport, after it was reported earlier that would be discussed at Thursday's meeting.

The first and deputy first said they have already advised people to wear face coverings in enclosed public spaces, but they understood it may not be practical if people are going out for a meal.

Image source, Niall Carson/PA
Image caption,
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on a bus earlier this month, encouraging passengers to wear face coverings

Irish Minister for Health Simon Harris confirmed on Thursday that the government hoped to regulate on the issue in the next week to 10 days.

Green light for elite athletes

Northern Ireland's elite athletes have also been told they can begin to train indoors again from 29 June.

Athletes classed as elite include Olympians, Paralympians, professional rugby, GAA and football players and cricketers.

Until now, they have only been allowed to train outdoors, with some swimmers travelling to Dublin for indoor pool use.

Contact sports training on a wider basis is also allowed to resume from Monday.

The first and deputy first ministers also confirmed that places of worship can reopen, as planned, on a wider basis from Monday as well.

Image caption,
Economy Minister Diane Dodds has made no secret of advocating for the 2m rule to be reduced

They said "great engagement" had taken place with church and faith leaders about how services could be conducted.

"What we want to do over the course of the next day or so is work out numbers in relation to weddings and funerals," said Ms O'Neill.

Free school meals issue resolved

She added that the executive would discuss that in more detail next week.

Mrs Foster said ministers had not reached an agreement about whether face coverings should become mandatory on public transport - but it will be looked at again on Monday.

The first minister also revealed that the executive have been able to sign off funding for free school meals over the summer.

Earlier this week it was held up after a row between Sinn Féin and the DUP over the failure to implement a payment scheme for victims of the Troubles.

Mrs Foster said Finance Minister Conor Murphy would detail the funding allocations from the June monitoring round in the assembly on Tuesday, which would include the estimated £12m to continue free school meals payments in July and August.

On Thursday, no further deaths were added to the Department of Health's total of 547, which mostly consists of deaths in hospitals.

A further two positive cases of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were recorded.

The Department of Health has also said that Northern Ireland's R-number - or reproduction number - "remains steady" between 0.6 and 0.9.

It is the average number of people that one coronavirus-infected person will pass the virus on to.

Mrs Foster also said the total number of infectious people in Northern Ireland is currently estimated to be fewer than 600.

Is a distance of 1m safe?

The World Health Organization recommends keeping a distance of at least 1m.

Some countries have adopted this guidance, often because they also insist on people wearing masks.

But it is not just about distance, but also timing.

The longer you spend in close proximity with an infected person, the bigger the risk.

Scientists advising the UK government say spending six seconds at a distance of 1m from someone is the same as spending one minute at a distance of 2m.

Following the executive's 1m announcement on Thursday, the chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland, Dr Tom Black, said the change is "acceptable only if accompanied by a clear and strong recommendation from our government that people should wear appropriate face coverings in all indoor spaces outside of their own homes and in any circumstances outside of the home where there is potential contact at less than 2m".

"We also want to see how the Northern Ireland government will measure the impact of this latest relaxation and to show there are clear and robust measures to ensure these changes do not result in more people becoming infected, ill, or die, or contribute to a second spike which could overwhelm the health service should that occur this winter."

Speaking on BBC NI's The View, Pat Cullen, of the Royal College of Nursing, said there was some anxiety among nurses about the move.

"Anxiety simply because they're saying we must not let the guard down completely," she said.

"We need to keep it under review, but I think for the health and well-being of the population of Northern Ireland, we needed to see that happen today and we welcome it."

This article was amended on 29 June 2020 to include further details of the Executive's advice on social distancing.