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The Briefing

Executive announces timeline for next easing of restrictions

Executive announces timeline for next easing of restrictions Banner

by Aiken PR


23rd April marks first easing of restrictions with unlicensed and licensed premises given indicative date of 24th May.

The Executive today outlined the next steps out of lockdown but not before a last minute public intervention by the Economy Minister to bring forward the timeline. The media pre–briefing by the Executive, shared by many of Northern Ireland’s leading journalists, was undercut as the Economy Minister forced through an expedited timeline.

Finally announced after a characteristic delay, Northern Ireland will trail behind the rest of the UK on most areas, but by less than expected eight hours ago. The current timeline is:

From April 23:

• Resumption of driving instruction and theory tests;

• Driving testing can resume;

• Re–opening of close contact services including training;

• Re–opening of outdoor visitor attractions including outdoor activity centres;

• Resumption of Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning (EATL) on an indoor and outdoor basis in gatherings of up to 30 people;

• Outdoor sport organised by a club, individual or individuals affiliated will be extended to include squad training;

• Competitive outdoor sport organised by a club, individual or individuals affiliated, with participant numbers not exceeding 100 and no spectators permitted can return and

• Static band practice/rehearsal will be permitted in agreed outdoor locations.

From 30 April:

• Increase the numbers permitted to gather in Domestic Setting Outdoors – to 15 people from no more than 3 households;

• Reopen all of retail;

• Reopen and permit overnight stays in self–contained tourist accommodation for one household only;

• Reopen unlicensed premises, outdoors only with a maximum of 6 people from 2 households per table and contact details recorded;

• Reopen licensed premises, including social clubs, outdoors only, limited to 6 people from no more than 2 households and contact details recorded;

• Remove the curfew on takeaways;

• Remove the curfew on off licences; and

• Permit individual activities in gyms, swimming pools and other large venues – including with a carer and to allow 1–2–1 training/coaching with social distancing.

An indicative date of May 24 for:

• Reopening unlicensed and licensed premises indoors with mitigations;

• Reopening the remainder of Tourist accommodation;

• Allowing visits indoors in domestic settings;

• Reopening indoor visitor attractions; and

• Resume indoor group exercise and training in numbers limited to suit the venue.

Contrasting against the rest of the UK, in Wales, you have been able to get a haircut since 15 March while England has just eased restrictions this week. Also in England, you can now get an alcoholic drink in a beer garden, while in Scotland gyms will open only slightly before us from 26 April. The reasoning for the time lag between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is mixed. Northern Ireland has fallen slightly behind the rest of the UK in terms of administering first doses. However, the difference is not huge and the UK as a whole is facing a constricted supply chain that has seen a focus on second doses, the now dominant category. Northern Ireland’s 7–day case rate per 100,000 has crept up week on week, rising to 44.3 from 28.8 seven days ago.

In spite of that, ROI’s lagging vaccine programme, 20.1% of the population has received their first dose vs 57.7% here, could be most to blame. Moving across the border to benefit from currency fluctuations has long been a done thing. Now, with a slower vaccination programme leading to a slower easing of lockdown in ROI, both Belfast and Dublin must be mindful of a situation that would incentivise people to cross the border just to access open hospitality and retail. The north west provides a case in point with its economic and social interlinkages, sustaining higher infection rates cross–border presently, while it also led to a regionalised approach last year. Derry City and Strabane LGD currently has the highest incidence rate, substantially above that of Newry, Mourne and Down in second. The Tánaiste said today that revisions to Covid–19 restrictions, due to be considered by the Irish Cabinet in two weeks, will not only include plans for May but also for June and July, hoping to give more certainty to businesses. Taking pubs as an example, ROI had previously been targeting mid–May for some form of opening, before becoming increasingly non–committal. News that the vaccination target of 80% of first doses by June provides some relief and freedom for policymakers concerned about incentivising travel. However, police on both sides of the border will likely be wary for hospitality tourists in the interim.

Underpinning today’s announcement, discord within the Executive remains rife with Hospitality Ulster tweeting criticising the leaking of dates before securing a meeting with the Economy Minister. As a result of the meeting, Hospitality Ulster indicated the Minister had assured them the dates leaked were not indicative of those she had suggested to the Executive. That was then followed by a letter from the Economy Minister dated today and sent to a wide distribution list including Executive ministers. The letter subsequently found its way, in full and very short order, into the hands of reporters. The Economy Minister made clear her disagreements with the leaked dates, arguing for earlier easings. She also attacked proposals around pre–booking slots at a café, arguing such visits were rarely pre–planned to that extent. Though Covid has changed and will continue to change our behaviours, Diane Dodds is probably correct to say that in this example, this is overly restrictive on the customer and expensive to the business, ultimately disincentivising both seller and consumer. While the Executive offered some clarity which will be beneficial, some of the restrictions seem as if they have been written up solely by public health officials with little input from those likely to be implementing or enforcing them. The finer details of mitigations and policies that must be followed when easings are implemented is still to be confirmed.

The apparent willingness to counter what looked like fairly widespread and coordinated briefing by those within the Executive is another reminder that it is not happy families. Despite the airing of tensions publicly, the Executive remains bound together by a public health emergency, even if it can’t agree on a response. As a result, the price for that finely balanced marriage remains public dissention from ministers, something that would look very out of place in neighbouring jurisdictions, and mixed and rapidly revised messaging. Cheers to 10 May 30 April.