// Northern Ireland confirms that non-essential retail can finally reopen shops on April 30
// Outdoor hospitality in groups of 6 can also resume April 30, as well as gyms
// Close contact services, hairdressers and beauty salons can reopen a week earlier on April 23
Stormont’s leaders said Northern Ireland can look to a brighter future as they announced a sweeping range of Covid-19 lockdown relaxations.
After lengthy discussions yesterday afternoon, ministers brought forward a series of reopening dates they had been initially considering.
The plan, outlined by First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill to a special Assembly committee last night, signed off by the devolved executive includes three key relaxation dates: April 23, April 30 and May 24.
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Under the plan, close contact services, hairdressers and beauty salons can reopen on April 23, while all other non-essential retailers could reopen April 30.
Gyms can also reopen on April 30, and restaurants, cafes and pubs can serve customers in outdoor settings in groups of six from no more than two householders.
Curfews on takeaways and off-licences will also be removed on April 30.
Meanwhile on May 24, restaurants, cafes and pubs can begin serving customers indoors – although this date is indicative and subject to another Executive review earlier in that month.
When Stormont’s lockdown exit strategy was first published at the start of March, the devolved executive faced criticism for not including any indicative reopening dates.
At the time, ministers said Northern Ireland’s lockdown exit plan would be driven by data and that the health picture was too volatile to offer provisional dates that ultimately might have to be scrapped.
With Northern Ireland having marked one million Covid-19 vaccines by last weekend and with other key health and scientific indicators going in the right direction, ministers have agreed on the most significant steps out a lockdown that started just after Christmas.
So far the only retail-related lockdown relaxations that have come into effect in Northern Ireland in recent weeks include click-and-collect for non-essential retail being allowed again and the reopening of outdoor-focused retail outlets, such as garden centres and car dealerships.
Up until yesterday Northern Ireland was the only home country to not have any indicative dates of when non-essential retail would be able to exit lockdown.
Shoppers have already started flocking to high streets across England and Wales after lockdown on non-essential was eased earlier this week, while Scotland’s lockdown exit is slated for April 26.
“This is a landmark day for Northern Ireland as we step firmly and with confidence on our pathway to recovery,” Foster said.
“I am pleased and proud that through our collective efforts we have reached a point where we have established a good level of control over the virus.
“We are now entering brighter and better times.
“This balanced package of relaxations will restore those familiar aspects of everyday life that have been missed dearly.
“I urge everyone to stay with us and keep following the health advice so that we can continue with our plans to more fully open up our society over coming weeks.”
O’Neill said: “Today, the light at the end of the tunnel has just got a little bit brighter.
“This is a day of positive progress.
“We have agreed a significant package of easements which will make a fundamental difference to people’s lives and wellbeing.
“The restrictions have been a necessary response to the pandemic, to suppress the virus and save lives.
“But they have taken their toll on people right across our society.
“I’m delighted that we are now in a position to move forward, thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of the public and the success of our vaccination programme.
“We can all take comfort from this progress and look forward to doing the things that are important to us while keeping ourselves and others as safe as possible.”
with PA Wires