Stormont agrees lockdown exit plan

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Stormont ministers have agreed a phased plan for taking Northern Ireland out of lockdown.

Ministers approved the final version of the much-anticipated strategy at a meeting on Tuesday afternoon, the PA news agency understands.

They had earlier asked officials to make some minor amendments to the plan before reconvening at 12.30pm to rubber-stamp the document.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill will outline the details on the floor of the Assembly later on Tuesday afternoon on behalf of her and First Minister Arlene Foster.

Coronavirus – Tue Jan 12, 2021
First Minister Arlene Foster, right, and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

Each will emerge from lockdown in stages. It is understood the stages are lockdown; cautious first steps; gradual easing; further easing; and preparing for the future.

Ministers have already made clear the blueprint will be led by data, not dates, with decisions on when to move between stages based on scientific and medical evidence, not the calendar.

Keeping the reproductive rate of the virus below 1 will be a guiding principle.

The Executive will review the progress of the pathway at set points, understood to be every four weeks.

PA understands that the plan will state: “Progress through the phases will be based on a range of evidence and will seek to balance the benefits for us with the potential impact on the transmission of the virus.

“This means we may be in different phases across the nine pathways at any given time.”

Northern Ireland’s lockdown and accompanying stay-at-home message is currently in place until April 1.

Ministers had been due to review that policy on March 18 but that date has now been brought forward to March 16.

The Executive has already outlined plans for a phased return of face-to-face learning at schools.

Only vulnerable children and those of key workers have been attending classes in mainstream schools since January.

P1 to P3 primary school children will return to school on March 8, and on March 22 secondary school children in key exam years – years 12-14 – will go back to class.

On that same date, the P1 to P3s are currently due to revert to home learning for one week ahead of the Easter holidays – to mitigate the impact on infection rates of the secondary school cohort’s return.

However, officials from the departments of health and education were asked last week to examine that aspect of the plan and Mrs Foster has expressed hope that those primary pupils will ultimately be able to remain in school that week.

No date has so far been given for the return of the wider school population.

Covid-19 vaccinations have been extended to people aged 60-64 in Northern Ireland.

Those eligible are urged to book online for appointments at health trust mass vaccination centres, the Department of Health said.

More than half a million doses of coronavirus vaccine have been administered in Northern Ireland.

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