Coronavirus: Much of NI lockdown to end next Friday

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Reporter

Image source, PACEMAKER
Image caption,
All non-essential retail has been closed since last Friday

Non-essential retail and some parts of the hospitality sector in Northern Ireland can reopen next Friday, the Stormont executive has agreed.

Ministers met on Thursday to decide what restrictions should remain after a two-week lockdown ends on 11 December.

Many hospitality businesses, including restaurants, cafes and hotels, can resume trading then but must be closed at 23:00 GMT each day.

Pubs that do not serve food will have to remain shut.

Media caption,
No further restrictions before Christmas - Foster

First Minister Arlene Foster said the executive would not impose any further restrictions before Christmas.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said the decisions had received "collective agreement" across the executive and had the endorsement of the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser.

The executive also agreed:

  • Close-contact services such as hairdressers, beauty salons and barbers will be allowed to reopen but only by appointment and with social distancing mitigations in place
  • Social distancing within cafes and restaurants is to be set at 2m (6ft 7in)
  • "Christmas bubbles" of three households will not have a limit on the number of people contained in them
  • Churches can resume more services, while weddings and funerals will have their cap of 25 people lifted - instead, a risk assessment will be carried out to determine how many people a venue can safely accommodate
  • Gyms will be able to reopen for individual training but not for classes
  • Indoor sport is also unlikely to be allowed to resume
Media caption,
Collective agreement to ease restrictions - O'Neill

Speaking on BBC Newsline to confirm the relaxations, Mrs Foster said: "We're trying to make sure people have a good Christmas and can come together in a safe way."

Those already in a support bubble with one household will still be allowed to join with two other households between 23 and 27 December.

Ministers had already approved the UK-wide plan, which will allow three households to mix for five days over Christmas.

Mrs Foster also said guidance would be issued for several sectors so that they could operate safely, and said there was a need to provide more financial support to drink-only pubs.

The localised coronavirus restrictions financial support scheme would "roll on" to support those firms that cannot open, she added.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Restaurants in Northern Ireland have been closed since 16 October

Ms O'Neill described the relaxations as "measured" and would allow people to move around "a bit more freely" but she acknowledged it all came with a risk.

"We're still in the middle of a pandemic and we need people to work with us," she told BBC Newsline.

Dr Tom Black, the Northern Ireland chair of the British Medical Association, said the easing of the restrictions appeared to be a "pragmatic decision".

"It is a calculated risk because... when you have a holiday period and people meet up the transmission of the virus increases," he told BBC News NI's The View programme.

"We will have in the health service in Northern Ireland a very busy time in the first three weeks in January - that seems inevitable.

"We will be sitting down to a banquet of consequences with increased admissions to hospital and more people in intensive care."

'Drink-only pubs bear the brunt'

Colin Neill, the chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, which represents pubs and restaurants, said the decision to keep drink-only pubs closed was "simply unfair and unjust".

"This is nothing but terrible news for owners and staff in traditional pubs who have once again been unfairly singled out to bear the brunt of the Covid lockdown for the greater good," he said.

"Our traditional pubs have only been open for three weeks since March so they cannot be responsible for the spread of the virus."

Glyn Roberts, the chief executive of the trade body Retail NI, said it was "welcome news" that the non-essential retail sector could reopen on 11 December.

"In saying that, these retailers will struggle to make up the losses from the two-week circuit breaker in the last few weeks of Christmas shopping," he said.

On Thursday, the Department of Health announced the deaths of 11 more people in Northern Ireland who had tested positive for coronavirus.

Another 456 people have tested positive for the virus.

The latest medical and scientific advice given to ministers indicates that the R-number - the average number of people that one infected person will pass the virus to - is about one.

A vaccine will be available in Northern Ireland from next week, after the UK drugs regulator gave approval in record time.

Previous decisions about whether to extend some restrictions have led to heated exchanges between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which had voiced opposition to harsher measures, and the rest of the executive parties.