Covid-19: Robin Swann insists steady pace will end lockdown

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image captionHealth Minister Robin Swann was speaking at a Stormont press conference

There are too many complexities and uncertainties for the executive to publish the specific data it will use to take decisions over lockdown restrictions, Robin Swann has said.

The health minister also said he understood frustration after indicative dates were not included in the lockdown exit plan.

Some businesses have criticised the lack of detail in the blueprint.

But Mr Swann insisted it was too soon to follow a calendar-led approach.

The executive will regularly assess the restrictions in place, with the next review scheduled for 16 March.

The factors for easing the lockdown include:

  • The infection rate of the virus, known as the R number
  • The number of people in hospital
  • The progress of the vaccine rollout
  • Success in testing and tracing positive cases

On Wednesday, four more coronavirus-related deaths were recorded by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, binging its death toll to 2,063.

A further 226 cases have been diagnosed.

There are 307 people with Covid-19 being treated in hospital, 31 of whom are in intensive care.

'Maintain steady pace'

The health minister insisted it would be wrong to publish an indicative timetable for reopening, saying it was not yet the time for definitive dates.

"But some of those demanding a calendar-led approach now would be the first to shout if we gave them dates and then had to alter them because of the progression of the pandemic," he told a news conference on Wednesday,

"I would love to be able to announce a simple mathematical formula on how the data will determine all our decisions."

But Mr Swann warned that there was too much uncertainty, adding that he would not offer people "false assurance".

"I would rather maintain a steady pace than charge for the exit door and fall over," he said.

Northern Ireland was on a "clear path to better times", he said as he outlined the latest vaccination figures which show 545,019 people have now received their first jab.

Some 37,862 people have received both doses.

Northern Ireland's Chief Medical Officer described the vaccine rollout as the breakthrough many had hoped for.

"It will permanently change the impact of the virus and increasingly lessen our dependence on some of the measures we have in place," said Dr Michael McBride.

"But no vaccine is 100% effective and will not protect everyone from this virus."

Who has received a first dose?

The Department of Health published a breakdown on Wednesday of first doses:

  • 96% of over 80-year-olds (69,146 people)
  • 91% of 75-79s (56,474 people)
  • 86% of 70-74s (70,098 people)
  • 72% of 65-69s (64,643 people)
  • 45% of people classed as Clinically Extremely Vulnerable - (42,832 people).

The department said many clinically extremely vulnerable people will be in the 65-plus age group, so are being covered in that section of the vaccination programme.

Unlike English and Scottish plans, Northern Ireland's document does not have indicative dates.

Earlier on Wednesday, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill also defended the plan.

"What we need now is a cautious and sustainable approach to allow businesses and the community and our families to get back together as quickly as possibly, but to do so in a way that's actually lasting that doesn't lead us back in this endless cycle of lockdowns," Ms O'Neill told BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

"There was a collective agreement at the executive yesterday that this pathway gives us the best chance to come out of the lockdown without having to go back into one."

Schools 'a litmus test'

But DUP MLA Paul Givan questioned the lack of indicative dates for easing restrictions.

"We need to know what the parameters are," he told a meeting of Stormont's Economy Committee on Wednesday.

His colleague Christopher Stalford said businesses needed greater clarity.

Sinn Féin MLA John O'Dowd said creating "false dawns", which cost businesses money and could also cost lives, was not the answer.

What is NI's plan for easing lockdown?

There are nine pathways set out by the executive:

  • Home and community
  • Education
  • Work
  • Retail
  • Hospitality
  • Sport and leisure
  • Worship and ceremonies
  • Travel and tourism
  • Culture, heritage and entertainment

The document then sets out the five-step sequencing of the executive plans to gradually lift restrictions on each of those sectors.

Read the full pathway-to-recovery plan here.

The lack of dates for reopening has been criticised by many business owners.

Colin Neill from Hospitality Ulster told Stormont's Executive Office committee he was disappointed the body's members were not consulted before the executive's plan was published.

Mr Neill said consultation could have meant industry representatives would have "bought into" the strategy, instead of being critical of the plan after its publication.

image copyrightPAcemaker press
image captionShops have been closed since 26 December

He also told the committee he has "huge concerns" about the structure of the high street task force, established by the executive to assist town centre businesses.

Mr Neill said its 30 person board will make decision making difficult.

He told MLAs "the clock is ticking for our high streets".

Sam Conley, a gym owner from Limavady, said: "We don't want to get back to work too early, but we have been very patient and we feel very let down by this.

"Give us something to work with and then at least we can see some blue sky in this."

Joe Dougan, promoter for SHINE Belfast who oversees major festivals like Belsonic and the Custom House Square gigs, said he welcomed the roadmap.

But he added: "Just seeing what happening across the water in England, there has been a lot of positivity about the larger music festivals there that take place later in the summer.

"I think that we're holding out a lot of hope that we'll be able to stage some sort of outdoor entertainment this summer."

What questions do you have about the Northern Ireland Executive's lockdown exit plan?

We'll answer them live during Thursday's Coronavirus Catch-up and this weekend on the BBC News NI website.

Join us at 19:00 GMT on the BBC News NI website, iPlayer and BBC News NI Facebook Page.

If you are reading this page on the BBC News app, you will need to visit the mobile version of the BBC website to submit your question on this topic.

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