Northern Ireland Executive ministers and their officials have over the past 72 hours been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.
The Executive today approved plans to provisionally allow tourism and hospitality businesses to serve customers again from 3 July.
First Minister Arlene Foster, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Economy Minister Diane Dodds confirmed that depending on the rate of infection, caravan parks, camping sites and self-catering tourist accommodation would reopen on 26 June.
However, hotels and other tourist accommodation would reopen from 3 July.
Executive ministers also decided that from July 3:
- Restaurants, coffee shops and cafes will provisionally reopen, with indoor bars and pubs allowed to serve food and alcohol on a table service basis.
- Pubs and bars with outdoor spaces would be permitted to operate an outdoors table service selling alcohol.
- Hotel restaurants would also be allowed to reopen with hotel bars restricted to serving meals along with alcohol on a table service basis.
- Hotels with outdoor spaces would also be permitted to sell alcohol in these spaces.
- Visitor attractions such as museums, historic houses, culture and heritage venues, can also open from 3rd July.
A working group on the gradual reopening of places of worship has also been established by the Executive, with representatives being contacted today ahead of its inaugural meeting this Wednesday (June 17).
Ministers agreed as well that childcare should be extended to key workers in the manufacturing and construction sectors, with officials in the Departments of Health and Education continuing to work alongside a reference group on the development of a Recovery Strategy for Childcare.
Describing the latest relaxations as a significant milestone on the road out of lockdown, First Minister Foster nevertheless sounded a note of caution at today’s Executive’s Covid-19 press briefing: “Some countries have seen spikes in COVID cases since emerging from lockdown, so we cannot afford to be complacent. All of the strides forward in recent weeks have been made possible by all of you implementing the public health advice and taking on the responsibility to stop the spread of this insidious disease. We have come so far on the Executive’s roadmap to recovery but the journey is far from over. We all have a role to play in ensuring we can reach our destination safely.”
Deputy First Minister O’Neill added: “Our priority in the opening of the hospitality and tourism sector is the safety of customers, staff and the wider community. The industry can now work towards these dates to ensure safe reopening in line with all of the relevant legislation and guidance but we still must be cautious. These announcements are good and welcome progress in the right direction. As long as the scientific evidence is still showing us that we can keep moving forward in this direction, we will continue to implement a steady rolling programme of relaxations.”
After the approval of her proposals for the tourism and hospitality sector, Minister Dodds said while the Executive had provided clarity on the reopening dates, it was up to individual businesses to decide when they would be able to serve customers.
She said: “These businesses will operate in a new and challenging world when they begin to emerge from Covid-19. Social distancing and hygiene practices will be essential to reassure customers and employees that establishments are as Covid-19 safe as possible. The UK Government has been developing guidance to help tourism and hospitality businesses plan for social distancing and hygiene measures. My Department and Tourism NI are looking at how this might be tailored to Northern Ireland in consultation with industry, PHA, HSENI and other bodies. This guidance should be published shortly and I would encourage all relevant businesses to refer to, and apply, it.”
The relaxations came on the back of the publication yesterday by the Department of Health of the most recent scientific data about Covid-19 for the Executive.
The R (reproduction number) is estimated at between 0.5 and 0.9, based on a range of different models and input variables but it is not the only factor that influences Executive decisions about social distancing and other restrictions.
In reaching any decision on relaxations, Ministers also consider the number of Covid-19 cases and other indicators of the activity of the Coronavirus, in addition to the benefits which may flow from lifting restrictions.
Minister Dodds also announced today the partial reopening of further education colleges and work-based learning providers to facilitate the delivery of vocational qualifications this summer.
During a visit to the Southern Regional College’s Portadown campus, she announced the move which followed her announcement in late April regarding the alternative arrangements put in place for vocational qualifications in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the cancellation of scheduled assessments and exams.
The Minister said: “The colleges have completed the necessary risk assessments and implemented the health and safety measures required, and I am pleased to announce a partial and targeted reopening to facilitate the assessments which will be key to increasing the number of learners who are able to progress. Over 2,850 FE learners will now achieve their qualifications as a result of the completion of the adaptive assessments, which will take place in those subject areas where the associated industrial sector has been given approval to return to work. I want to congratulate and thank all the colleges and their staff for their continued hard work to date, and the students and their families for their ongoing patience and support during what remains a very challenging time.”
Amenities at Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs-owned forest and country parks also began the process of reopening today.
Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots authorised the reopening of toilet facilities and vans selling food, ice creams and beverages onsite.
Minister Poots explained: “I am opening these facilities as a further step to aid recovery and to provide a more complete experience for people visiting these fantastic outdoor venues. In doing so, I would once again stress the need for visitors to use the facilities responsibly and continue to play their part in reducing Covid-19 risks for everyone.”
The Minister also visited two community organisations that have received funding from his Department to deal with issues affecting the rural community during Covid-19.
During his visit to Annaghmore LOL in Castledawson and the Crossfire Trust in Darkley, he saw how they used their portion of the £250,000 Coronavirus Community Fund to address the needs of vulnerable and isolated people in their local communities.
Minister Poots said afterwards: “Organisations like Crossfire Trust and Annaghmore LOL are the heartbeat of a rural community and during times of challenge, they are a lifeline to those living in remote areas. Through the Community Foundation and the Rural Community Network, my Department have to date provided funding to over 80 rural organisations, so that they can help on the ground, with things like emergency food packages, oil delivery, blankets and duvets and delivery of medicines. The Fund is targeted at supporting isolated older people (aged over 50), as well as those people of all ages who are at increased risk in relation to poor mental health and wellbeing; and vulnerable isolated people and families, particularly those living in rural areas. I wanted to see the impacts on the ground for myself and am very impressed with their work and pleased that we’ve been able to help.”