It is almost a year since coronavirus, lockdowns, social distancing and face masks became a part of our every day vocabulary and restrictions loomed over our lives.
Since Boxing Day, people in Northern Ireland have been under strict restrictions which have made it an offence to leave your home without a reasonable excuse.
But as we pass the peak of the latest surge of coronavirus cases, the Executive are due to meet on Thursday, February 18, to discuss the current restrictions in place.
So ahead of this meeting, we have had a look at what we can expect to be discussed and if there’s any indication when some restrictions will be eased.
What are the current restrictions and when do they end?
At the moment Northern Ireland is under a strict lockdown as our health service continues to be put under extreme pressures as a result of coronavirus.
The current regulations are in place until March 5 but are set to be reviewed on February 18 by the Executive.
At the moment, no one is allowed to leave their home without a reasonable excuse such as for food, exercise or medical needs. Schools moved to remote learning following the Christmas break and won’t be back in the classroom before March 5.
As well as the hospitality sector remaining closed, non-essential shops, leisure facilities, entertainment venues and close contact services are currently closed.
Everyone is being urged to work from home, unless that is not possible.
What have members of the Executive indicated will be discussed?
Mrs Foster said next week was a “key decision point” for the Executive and added that we “need to see the numbers as low as possible so that we can safely plan for gradually emerging from the lockdown”.
“We all want to see an end to the restrictions but we must approach that with care so we don’t lose the gains that we have made,” she said.
She said that the current figures give us confidence that we can plan for the period ahead and to “gradually restore a degree of normality to lives and livelihoods”.
Both Mrs Foster and Mr Murphy said restrictions would not be in place longer than was necessary. Mr Murphy said there was a collective focus on a managed recovery guided by medical and scientific advice.
When asked if they could give an indication for how long the current restrictions could last, Mr Murphy said that particular issue was something they would address next week.
He said: “I think collectively as an Executive we will have not only a discussion and review of where we are at next Thursday, but to set out very quickly a pathway to recovery, which of course will continue to be advised by medical and scientific advice, but to give people a sense of here are the stages we are moving through, here’s where we hope to get to.
“There’s no one in the Executive wants to have restrictions for one second longer than is absolutely necessary, that’s always been the case, we want to see society open up, we want to see businesses start to thrive again, we want to see people getting out, we recognise the real mental health challenges there are to society as a whole because of the restrictions and the fact people continue to be locked down essentially and restricted in their movements.
“So there is a real desire to get ourselves through this but what we need is an agreed, collective approach to this, we will set that out next week and I think we want to give some hope to people that we are beginning to emerge from this. How long that takes still has to be measured because the virus is unpredictable, but we will try to set out a time frame for people. It is our clear intention to make that as short as possible but of course it will be guided by the advice we get.”
What changes to restrictions could be made in the coming weeks?
It is unlikely there will be too many changes but when asked, Mrs Foster said click and collect and opening certain sections of retail would certainly be part of the discussions in the Executive.
She said it was important to take an overall approach and in particular she said the Executive had a lot of sympathy for difficulties facing new parents, not least in regards to not being able to get to shops for certain nursery items and baby clothes.
“There’s also a realisation in the Executive that what may be seen as non-essential for a short period of time becomes essential because of the passage of time,” she said.
“For example, we talked a little bit today about if you have an 18-month-old and they need to get their shoes, they need to get into a shop and get their little feet measured. So things like that, we will discuss all of those issues next week when we come to the review of the regulations.”
Mr Murphy added that they wanted to give as much assurance to the community as possible by coming together with a comprehensive plan to answer questions. He also gave the example of children not being able to take part in outdoor sporting activities and said all these issues were being raised and considered.
What has the Health Minister said about the current situation in Northern Ireland and moving out of lockdown?
On Wednesday Health Minister Robin Swann said our “long pandemic battle sadly continues” but that now was the time to talk about how we can “steadily work our way out of it”.
But he said a balanced approach was needed as while he wanted to give people hope, he said he also had to stress the need for caution.
“Like everyone else, I long for the day when any restrictions do not hang like a dark cloud over all aspects of our daily lives,” he said.
“That day is achievable, but we have to tread carefully towards it.”
The Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride and Mr Swann both said during the week that some restrictions may be with us on a long term basis.
Mr Swann said we may be wearing face coverings in shops and on public transport for a long time to come.
“This kind of restriction may well become part of our new normal daily life,” he said.
But he added that it did not mean lockdowns, or partial lockdowns, had to roll on indefinitely, clarifying that lockdowns and restrictions were not the same thing.
Mr Swann said if we continue with the progress we are making, we can “consider a careful, managed, easing of some measures”, but added that would only be when and if the timing was right.
“The Executive will look next week at what should be done in March, it will consider what changes, if any, can and should be made to the current restrictions,” said Mr Swann.
Has Robin Swann detailed a plan for moving forward?
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Mr Swann said: “Today I want to set out the three guiding principals on how I believe we should proceed. My first is that infection rates must come down, and pressures on our hospitals must be significantly eased. That is achievable because we are making important progress towards it. Case numbers have been falling thanks to the efforts and sacrifices that people have made across Northern Ireland.
“But there is still more to do because our hospitals and health care workers remain under intense pressure. We need to redouble our efforts to stay at home, shop only when necessary, go out only when necessary, don’t mix with other unnecessarily, wash your hands and wear our masks.
“If we want a better spring and summer we need to make the utmost effort now.”
Mr Swann said his second guiding principal was that we need to be acutely aware of the risks and uncertainties that come with this virus.
“Caution should always be our watch board,” he said.
“When it comes to the easing of any restrictions we have to crawl before we can walk, walk before we can even think about running. If there are to be any changes in the next few weeks or months, they must be introduced gradually and carefully and be strictly monitored.”
He said new variants represent a considerable uncertainty as we can’t risk another surge of new cases as our health service is still reeling from the most recent surge.
Mr Swann said we could not come out of one lockdown to then have to go into another one in a matter of weeks. He referenced the spike in cases following the relaxation of restrictions for mixing over Christmas and highlighted the danger around mixing with St Patrick’s Day and Easter approaching and said we “must not let history repeat itself”.
His third principle is being mindful of how tough this all is and the toll it is taking.
He said: “Let me be clear, I hate the word lockdown and all that it represents, I know how fed up everyone is, I feel it too, believe me I hate the damage being done to our community, to our economy, to our society and to individual lives.
“As a father I very much understand the sacrifices being made by our children and our young people. As a son and a brother I long for the day when my family, and everyone else’s family, can enjoy the freedoms that we all used to take for granted.
“But we can get there, but we are not there yet.”
Did Mr Swann give any details about what he would recommend to the Executive?
Mr Swann would not be drawn on what his advice will be to the Executive next week but said it will be stage managed approach, similar to when we came out of the first lockdown.
He said: “When you look back to what the Executive did collaboratively coming out of the first lockdown, it was about a staged approach depending on where the virus was, we didn’t set dates, we didn’t set timetables, we saw how the spread of the virus was going.
“I can say now that will be the advice and guidance we will be giving the Executive, let’s not get hung up on dates, let’s concentrate on where the benefits and the reactions of the steps we are taking is actually being seen across society.”
When asked if any of the restrictions will be eased in March, Mr Swann said: “That review will be taken by the Executive next week, we will feed in our input and recommendations as we always do but it’s about taking those steps that are proportionate and just in regards to where the virus is and what additional stresses and strains there are on society and the economy and family life as well. So it is about taking that finely balanced approach as the Executive has always done, but it also has to be done in mind of the pressures that are still on our health service.
“If we were to open up too rapidly, too quick, we only compound those strains and stresses that our health service are currently facing so it has to be done and any decision has to be taken with that in mind as well.”
What has the Chief Medical Officer said about easing restrictions?
Dr McBride told the press conference on Wednesday that everyone was “tired and fed up” and that it had been a “long and difficult year”.
“While some restrictions are likely to be required into the long term, as I have said, that does not mean all of them,” said Dr McBride.
“No one is advocating for a full lockdown continuing into next year, we can do better than that and we must do better than that.”
Dr McBride said that if restrictions are eased in a way to allow the R rate to increase above 1, the numbers of new cases will grow, and if restrictions are lifted too early or too rapidly it could lead to large numbers of hospitalisations and deaths.
He said: “So we need to allow time between relaxing one thing, assessing the impact of that relaxation before we make the decision, the Executive makes the decision, to relax another thing.
“Small, careful baby steps.”
He said what was needed now was caution and a determination to avoid any false starts or false hope. He said a sustainable basis was needed for the “careful and gradual easing of the current restrictions down the line and at the right time”.
Mr McBride said the situation was still very fragile and that if we relaxed the restrictions too rapidly and too early, or if we don’t continue to follow advice, then we could quickly see a surge.
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