Northern Ireland’s lockdown will be extended to 1 April but some children will return to school earlier, First Minister Arlene Foster has confirmed.
Speaking at a news conference, Mrs Foster said the Northern Ireland Executive had decided that “a full lifting of the current restrictions is not possible at this point”.
The Executive had “reluctantly” accepted the advice of scientists that coronavirus measures needed to be in place for longer, she added.
But while the current lockdown measures would remain in force for a number of weeks yet, Mrs Foster said there would be a relaxing of some rules prior to 1 April.
Under the phased return of schools:
- from 8 March pre-school, nursery and primary school pupils in year groups P1 to P3 will return to face-to-face learning
- on 22 March, secondary pupils who will be awarded qualifications this summer – year groups 12 to 14 – will return to school
- but pre-school, nursery and P1 to P3 pupils will go back to remote learning for a week on 22 March – for the week prior to the Easter holidays – to minimise the impact on infection rates of years 12-14 returning
- the Executive intends for all other students to return to classrooms as soon as possible after the Easter holidays.
Only vulnerable children and those of key workers have been in classrooms in Northern Ireland since January.
At a meeting on Thursday, the Executive also agreed:
- to relax the rules on outdoor gatherings, with groups of 10 or more from up to two households able to gather in parks or other outdoor public spaces from 8 March
- to allow click and collect for shops selling baby equipment, clothing, footwear, and electrical goods from 8 March.
Mrs Foster promised a full review of the main lockdown restrictions on 18 March, with a “continual review on an ongoing basis” in the meantime.
The Executive will publish a “decision-making framework” for Northern Ireland’s exit from lockdown on 1 March, she added.
The first minister praised “significant results in our pushback against COVID-19”, with the R rate of infection now between 0.7-0.8, along with a fall in the number of people needing hospital care and a fall in the number of deaths.
And Northern Ireland is “on the verge” of having given a first vaccine dose to 30% of its adult population, she added.
Yet, despite Northern Ireland being “past the peak of this period of infection”, Mrs Foster admitted there was still “significant concern” about community transmission of the virus.
“The decisions facing the Executive today have not been straightforward, there are many factors that have been assessed and balanced,” she said.
“But what is clear is we must proceed with great care and with caution. We need our decisions to be both safe and sustainable.
“And I’m determined through the proper sequencing of actions, as we emerge from these restrictions, that we leave lockdowns in the rear view and that we do not step backwards again.”
The first minister added: “We believe the best way to win this stage of our battle against COVID-19 is to dig in and to secure the position we hold, and then to slowly move forward.”
Finance minister Conor Murphy urged people in Northern Ireland not to make plans for the Easter weekend, despite the lockdown extension ending on Holy Thursday.
“The advice would not be to book anything for Easter weekend,” he said.
“I would advise people not to be looking at 1 April as the date that everything will be opening up again.”
Commenting on the reopening of services for some non-essential shops, economy minister Diane Dodds said: “This is a cautious but welcome step.
“Contactless click and collect services provide a measure of protection to our smaller independent businesses while at the same time easing footfall within larger retail outlets.”
Analysis: Northern Ireland lockdown extended but ‘baby steps’ plan to ease restrictions
By David Blevins, senior Ireland correspondent
Northern Ireland’s lockdown, which had been due to end on Friday 5 March, has been extended until Friday 1 April.
But the devolved government has attempted to strike a balance by confirming the phased return of pupils to the classroom.
Children in primaries 1 to 3 (ages 4-7) will be back in school for two weeks from Monday 8 March.
GCSE, AS and A-level students will then return for one week from Monday 22 March, just before the Easter break.
Health officials advised ministers that having both cohorts in school at the same time could impact on the infection rates.
First Minister Arlene Foster confirmed that Northern Ireland would soon have administered 500,000 first vaccinations, 30% of the adult population.
But she cautioned that the new B117 variant, accounting for 70% of cases in Northern Ireland, “moves with alarming speed.”
There will be some easing of the restrictions on outdoor gatherings – an increase to 10 people from two different households.
Ministers are determined, however, not to make the same mistake they made at Christmas by lifting lockdown just before Easter.
They warned the public that these were “baby steps” and they should not make any great plans for Easter weekend.
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