Restrictions are becoming a normal part of life for people in Northern Ireland as we battle to get coronavirus infection rates under control.
But as time goes on, the question we are all asking is, when will lockdown ease and restrictions begin to lift.
On Thursday, the Executive will meet to discuss the restrictions ahead of March 5, when the regulations are currently in place to.
But there has been a lot of cautious talk about how we will move out of this current period of lockdown, especially as new variants of coronavirus are changing things.
So we have taken a look at what we can expect from today’s meeting and what changes, if any, could be announced.
What are the current restrictions and who is meeting on Thursday?
Northern Ireland is under a strict lockdown at the moment as our health service continues to be put under extreme pressures as a result of coronavirus.
We have passed the peak of the third wave but the number of people in intensive care is still a major concern.
The current regulations are in place until March 5 but are set to be reviewed on February 18 by the Executive. It will be up to Stormont’s five main parties to decide what way to move forward. As always, their discussions will be informed by medical and scientific evidence from officials like Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride.
At the moment, no one is allowed to leave their home without a reasonable excuse such as for food, exercise or medical needs. Schools moved to remote learning following the Christmas break and won’t be back in the classroom before March 5.
As well as the hospitality sector remaining closed, non-essential shops, leisure facilities, entertainment venues and close contact services are currently closed.
Everyone is being urged to work from home, unless that is not possible.
What will they discuss and what are their options?
The Executive will discuss the current situation, the Covid-19 numbers as they stand in Northern Ireland, and what sectors need attention first when it comes to moving out of lockdown.
Last week, First Minster Arlene Foster said this week was a “key decision point” for the Executive and added that we “need to see the numbers as low as possible so that we can safely plan for gradually emerging from the lockdown”.
“We all want to see an end to the restrictions but we must approach that with care so we don’t lose the gains that we have made,” she said.
She said that the current figures give us confidence that we can plan for the period ahead and to “gradually restore a degree of normality to lives and livelihoods”.
On Wednesday, a further six coronavirus related deaths and 297 positive cases were reported by the Department of Health. There are currently 434 Covid-19 confirmed patients in hospital and 53 in intensive care.
Speaking last week, Finance Minister Conor Murphy said there was a collective focus on a managed recovery guided by medical and scientific advice.
He said how long the current restrictions would last would be a particular issue they would address this week.
The major decision for the Executive will be to decide whether to extend restrictions beyond March 5, or begin the process of lifting them.
Mr Murphy said: “I think collectively as an Executive we will have not only a discussion and review of where we are at next Thursday, but to set out very quickly a pathway to recovery, which of course will continue to be advised by medical and scientific advice, but to give people a sense of here are the stages we are moving through, here’s where we hope to get to.
“There’s no one in the Executive wants to have restrictions for one second longer than is absolutely necessary, that’s always been the case, we want to see society open up, we want to see businesses start to thrive again, we want to see people getting out, we recognise the real mental health challenges there are to society as a whole because of the restrictions and the fact people continue to be locked down essentially and restricted in their movements.
“So there is a real desire to get ourselves through this but what we need is an agreed, collective approach to this, we will set that out next week and I think we want to give some hope to people that we are beginning to emerge from this. How long that takes still has to be measured because the virus is unpredictable, but we will try to set out a time frame for people. It is our clear intention to make that as short as possible but of course it will be guided by the advice we get.”
How is the vaccination programme advancing and will that not let us move out of lockdown?
A major extension of Northern Ireland’s vaccine roll-out was announced on Wednesday with a drive to vaccinate carers and GPs also providing the jab to more people with underlying health conditions.
To date over 438,708 coronavirus vaccines have now been administered in Northern Ireland.
But last week, Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said the emergence of new variants means we must be cautious over the easing of current restrictions.
He said new variants, such as the Kent, Brazilian and South African, must be taken seriously and are causing uncertainties as we work our way out of lockdown.
This means we can not set reopening targets by dates and that the Executive will be determining priorities for the easing of restrictions.
“I think we need to take them [variants] seriously, that’s why we have to be cautious, that’s why we can not put hard dates to things, we have had no experience working our way back out of restrictions with this new variant in circulation,” he said.
“There’s no doubt now it is the dominant variant and will continue to remain the dominant variant for some time [Kent variant]. It is up to 50% more transmissible so that’s means we just can’t get away with the things we used to get away with. It means this variant will transmit in circumstances the old variant wouldn’t have.”
He said the concern is the vaccine may be less effective at protecting people against new variants but Dr McBride said there was not a huge amount of information or data about how effective the vaccines are in those settings.
He added that it could mean people who have had the vaccine may need a booster by Autumn.
Dr McBride said it was important in the weeks and months ahead we endeavour to keep the R number below 1 as it will keep the virus under control and help as the Executive considers next steps around easing restrictions and returning to “a little more normality in life”.
He said it was important that we relaxed the current restrictions “slowly and carefully, a step at a time” to keep the virus under control.
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But he added he was hopeful that as more people are vaccinated, and pressures on the health service fall, then we will gradually be able to ease some of the current restrictions.
Dr McBride said vaccinations were a roadmap out of this but said we will continue to live with the virus that means we have to continue to be careful and “press down on transmission of the virus”.
“There’s a high degree of uncertainty about the situation in the Autumn and Winter, we will have by that stage vaccinated more people but we need to bear in mind that no vaccine is 100% effective,” he said.
“We will not be able to vaccinate 100% of the population as not everyone will take up the vaccine when it is offered and we may then see the coronavirus reappearing and we may then need to think about some further steps to control the spread of the virus.”
What about bars, restaurants and cafes opening back up?
The hospitality industry is still waiting on answers as to when they can expect to fully reopen again. At the moment some establishments can offer a takeaway service between set hours.
On Tuesday, Hospitality Ulster called on the Executive, its public health advisers and the Covid Taskforce Strategic Oversight Board to work in partnership with the industry and develop the parameters by which the hospitality sector can reopen.
Hospitality Ulster said the Executive must engage in meaningful discussions, learn from past mistakes, and tell the sector what it needs to plan for, so that it is prepared well in advance and has all mitigations in place.
Colin Neill, Chief Executive, Hospitality Ulster said: “The hospitality sector has been the worst hit and suffered almost an entire year of being closed or heavily restricted. We are now in a frightening situation. Bounce back loans have been burnt up and cash reserves have been depleted and desperation is really beginning to set in.
“Both the industry and government now need to learn lessons from past restrictions, what worked, and what didn’t. We also need a new approach; reversing the previous reopening strategy, from; who can open – here are the rules, to; here are the rules and those that can comply can open, whilst providing financial support for those that cannot operate sustainably under the rules.
“Simply choosing a business type as criteria to open and removing financial support rather than a risk assessed approach can actually be counterproductive, pushing a business to open even though it can’t be compliant.”
Speaking to Belfast Live at the end of January, Mr Neill said did not believe they will be allowed to reopen on March 5 when the current restrictions are due to end and that there will be some degree of restrictions for the rest of this year.
How about non-essential shops, will they reopen soon?
Well it is certainly going to be discussed by the Executive today. Last week, Mrs Foster said it was important to take an overall approach and in particular she said the Executive had a lot of sympathy for difficulties facing new parents, not least in regards to not being able to get to shops for certain nursery items and baby clothes.
“There’s also a realisation in the Executive that what may be seen as non-essential for a short period of time becomes essential because of the passage of time,” she said.
“For example, we talked a little bit today about if you have an 18-month-old and they need to get their shoes, they need to get into a shop and get their little feet measured. So things like that, we will discuss all of those issues next week when we come to the review of the regulations.”
Mr Murphy added that they wanted to give as much assurance to the community as possible by coming together with a comprehensive plan to answer questions. He also gave the example of children not being able to take part in outdoor sporting activities and said all these issues were being raised and considered.
On Tuesday, Retail NI called for a high street reopening roadmap to be produced.
Retail NI Chief Executive Glyn Roberts said it is “unlikely the Executive will give a firm date for the reopening for non-essential retail reopening; preparation for this and ensuring our high streets are fully compliant with the health regulations can begin now”.
He added: “Covid Marshalls, public hand sanitisers and business compliance scoring with the regulations all need to be in place for the reopening of non-essential retail to reassure shoppers and to limit transmission.
“This will require considerable effort from the Executive, Local Councils and businesses working in partnership to produce a reopening plan for our high streets.
“We also need to see Click and Collect restored to provide a vital lifeline for struggling independent retailers as a first step in this roadmap.
“Furthermore, we need to hear a lot more hope in the messages coming from the Executive to give businesses and the broader community confidence that the vaccine rollout will lead to recovery and some degree of normality.
“More light and less tunnel is needed from the Executive in its communication.”
What could be the first thing to reopen or eased?
Speaking last week, Dr McBride said activities that result in us coming together indoors pose a higher risk and that it was likely they would look at activities that bring people together outdoors first.
He also said the Executive have said the education of our children is always going to be a priority when it comes to getting schools open again.
“We need to recognise that there has been a huge impact on children over the last period of time, the Executive has already indicated that the education of children is a priority,” he said.
“I think those are the sorts of things the Executive will look to in the first instance, I can’t predetermine or prejudge that, however, what I would say is if you think about it, our increases when we mix and people come together, and the Executive has been very clear throughout, that its policy objective was to keep R below 1 and keeping R below 1 will require us to ease restrictions gradually and carefully and assess the impact.”
Dr McBride said there were too many uncertainties to put dates on when certain sectors would reopen and we needed to follow the data and see how the virus is behaving, especially around the new variants.
He added that we can not set targets by dates and that the Executive would be determining priorities for the easing of restrictions.
“We have a limited social contact budget and we need to spend that wisely,” he said.
“We need to determine where in the first instance is the highest priority for us to allow people to mix, whether that is education, some aspects of retail or wherever that is.
“It is just important as the First Minister said that we push down now on the transmission of the virus and the next steps are carefully considered and as Mr Murphy advised and informed by the science.”
What has the Health Minister said about the current situation, moving out of lockdown and what he will recommend to the Executive?
Robin Swann would not be drawn on what his advice will be to the Executive this week but said it will be a stage managed approach, similar to when we came out of the first lockdown.
He said: “When you look back to what the Executive did collaboratively coming out of the first lockdown, it was about a staged approach depending on where the virus was, we didn’t set dates, we didn’t set timetables, we saw how the spread of the virus was going.
“I can say now that will be the advice and guidance we will be giving the Executive, let’s not get hung up on dates, let’s concentrate on where the benefits and the reactions of the steps we are taking is actually being seen across society.”
When asked if any of the restrictions will be eased in March, Mr Swann said: “That review will be taken by the Executive next week, we will feed in our input and recommendations as we always do but it’s about taking those steps that are proportionate and just in regards to where the virus is and what additional stresses and strains there are on society and the economy and family life as well. So it is about taking that finely balanced approach as the Executive has always done, but it also has to be done in mind of the pressures that are still on our health service.
“If we were to open up too rapidly, too quick, we only compound those strains and stresses that our health service are currently facing so it has to be done and any decision has to be taken with that in mind as well.”
Dr McBride said that if restrictions are eased in a way to allow the R rate to increase above 1, the numbers of new cases will grow, and if restrictions are lifted too early or too rapidly it could lead to large numbers of hospitalisations and deaths.
He said: “So we need to allow time between relaxing one thing, assessing the impact of that relaxation before we make the decision, the Executive makes the decision, to relax another thing.
“Small, careful baby steps.”
He said what was needed now was caution and a determination to avoid any false starts or false hope. He said a sustainable basis was needed for the “careful and gradual easing of the current restrictions down the line and at the right time”.
Mr McBride said the situation was still very fragile and that if we relaxed the restrictions too rapidly and too early, or if we don’t continue to follow advice, then we could quickly see a surge.
Could the restrictions stay in place past Easter?
There seems to be a concern around easing some restrictions ahead of St Patrick’s Day and Easter for fear of infection rates increasing again and more pressure being put on our hospitals as people mix more.
It seems lessons have been learnt around letting people mix too soon after the relaxing of restrictions for Christmas. Minister Swann has said we “must not let history repeat itself” in regards to this.
Experts say that while the spread of the virus has slowed, numbers are not close enough to last summer’s levels to allow the same relaxing of rules.
The Executive’s new pathway to recovery paper is expected to be published in the coming weeks which is likely to detail a gradual reopening of one sector at a time so officials can monitor the situation each step of the way.
But it does look like the majority of restrictions could be in place until Easter.
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