Northern Ireland

Coronavirus: First moves to ease NI lockdown can start next week

woman in garden centre Image copyright GLYN KIRK/AFP
Image caption Garden centres in England opened to customers on Wednesday

Garden centres and recycling centres in Northern Ireland can reopen from Monday as part of the first measures to ease lockdown, Arlene Foster has said.

On Tuesday, the executive published a five-phase blueprint for lifting restrictions but it did not include a timeframe.

The first minister said updated medical advice meant the executive could now approve the "tentative first steps".

Marriage ceremonies where a person is terminally ill will also be allowed.

The executive has stressed that not all aspects of the first step of its recovery plan will take effect at once.

Speaking at the executive's daily press conference on Thursday, Mrs Foster said the executive was trying to be "open and transparent" with the public, and would publish the thinking behind its decision-making on the Department of Health website.

'Act of compassion'

"When we asked where the R-number is today, we were told it is below 0.7 today so obviously that has an implication," she added.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said implementing parts of the first step of the recovery plan was not a decision that had been taken lightly.

Fr Edward McGee, spokesperson for the Diocese of Down and Connor, said the move to allow marriage ceremonies for the terminally ill was an "act of compassion" by the executive.

"Couples who find themselves in these circumstances remind us all of what's happening at this time, and there's an urgency and a pastoral sensibility," he told BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra programme.

Mrs Foster said ministers had authorised the move after hearing the case of a terminally ill woman who wants to get married.

"We just felt that it was wrong that it couldn't happen," added the first minister.

Later, Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots told BBC Northern Ireland's The View that he intends to re-open Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) 91 fishing facilities to anglers, from Monday.

"That is a decision we are going to proceed with and move ahead with," he said

"We will not be able to open the car parks immediately, so it will be for anglers to stay local and do their angling at a local level.

"We will be able to open the carparks at a slightly later point."

In other developments on Thursday:

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Michelle O'Neill (r) said the NI Executive was taking "small baby steps" when it came to lifting restrictions

Ms O'Neill said the executive will hold further discussions next week about potentially lifting some other restrictions, as part of the first step of its recovery blueprint.

"These are gradual, small baby steps we are taking," she added.

"Hopefully today is a little step or a glimmer of light for people."

The reopening of garden and recycling centres can only happen if social distancing measures are followed, said Mrs Foster.

She added that visiting them "will constitute an appropriate reason for travel".

"It's important to emphasise that any changes in restrictions does not mean we can relax our behaviour in any way," said Ms O'Neill.

'Do not flood to garden centres'

Robin Mercer, who owns a garden centre in Belfast, told Evening Extra it was "great news" for businesses like his.

"So many gardeners will be happy, but it also gives us time to get our staff in, get risk assessments done and show them how to protect themselves and customers," he said.

Image copyright BrianAJackson
Image caption The move to allow marriage ceremonies for people who are terminally ill has been described as an 'act of compassion'

He added that this time of year is the peak season for garden centres because plants have a "shelf life".

However, customers should not flood to garden centres from Monday, warned Mr Mercer.

"I don't want to see big queues out the door," he said.

Earlier, the Department of Health reported a further five deaths related to Covid-19 in Northern Ireland, mostly in hospitals, bringing its total to 454.

Three of the deaths happened since Wednesday, while the other two occurred earlier but have now been added to the department's toll.

These figures are one of two sets published in Northern Ireland - each Friday statistics agency Nisra publishes its weekly update.

Those statistics cover all deaths where coronavirus has been recorded on the death certificate.

As of 1 May, Nisra had recorded 516 Covid-19 related deaths in Northern Ireland.

Why does the R-rate matter for lifting lockdown?

The R-value - or reproduction number - is at the heart of the executive's decision to keep the lockdown in place, until at least the end of May, only lifting a small number of measures that bring the least risk.

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.

Earlier this week, Mrs Foster said the R-rate in NI was sitting at 0.79, falling from between 0.8 and 0.9 in the previous two weeks.

The Department of Health said the R-rate is calculated mostly on intensive care occupancy and hospital admissions, but that care home cases have essentially "no impact" on it.

The executive's Chief Scientific Adviser Prof Ian Young has said the R-number in care homes across Northern Ireland is "significantly above 1.0 at the moment".

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