Virus too unpredictable to set dates for easing lockdown, say ministers

Michael McHugh, PA
·2 min read

The coronavirus is too unpredictable to set dates for easing lockdown, Stormont’s blueprint for jump-starting society said.

Ministers pledged to be driven by evidence and to act in a proportionate and sustainable fashion as they attempt to revive mothballed businesses and tackle social isolation.

They said they were committed to giving as much notice as possible of any changes.

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Their new plan said: “As we have seen already, the course of the pandemic has been highly unpredictable and is likely to be so for some time yet. That is why we do not favour setting dates at this stage.

“We want to prevent businesses, communities and sectors investing in planning for opening dates that may need to be flexible.

“It will require a minimum of three weeks to assess the impact of each significant relaxation before we decide on the next.”

New, more infectious variants of coronavirus have attracted considerable comment and ongoing scientific research into how effective vaccinations are.

Ministers in Belfast want a gradual and considered approach to reopening society, avoiding giving dates in case it builds up false hopes.

Northern Ireland has been in lockdown since Christmas.

The Executive’s Pathway Out of Restrictions document said ministers would keep suppression of the virus at the forefront of their considerations.

It said: “We are committed to giving you as much notice as possible, on a regular and ongoing basis, so that you can prepare for any changes we will be
making.

“We will maintain a strong focus on relaxing restrictions as soon
as it is possible and advising you of our forward plans.”

Ministers have put in place a cycle of regular review and action.

They said: “We will continually monitor and assess the impact of relaxations and after taking each decision, we will pause and reflect on the health, societal and economic impacts before reviewing and moving to the next decision.

“In particular, we will look for linkages and consistency across each of the
pathways, as not all sectors will move at the same pace.”

There are nine pathways set out:

– 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 sequence to gradually lift restrictions on each of those sectors.

Factors to be taken into consideration include keeping the reproductive rate of coronavirus spread below one and maintaining health service capacity.

Ministers will monitor the impact of the restrictions on the community, including on mental and physical health and increased isolation.

They will also weigh the performance of the labour market and the viability and financial vulnerability of businesses.

There will be a rolling review every four weeks, in line with how the regulations are currently reviewed. The next is scheduled for March 18.