Cemeteries to reopen in NI on a controlled basis

Cemeteries are to reopen in Northern Ireland on a controlled basis, the first minister said.

Graveyards were closed in March when coronavirus lockdown measures were announced.

Some of Belfast’s cemeteries are to reopen from Sunday.

The Public Health Agency (PHA) has recorded a further 15 Covid-19 deaths in past 24 hours, bringing its total to 278, with 3,122 cases.

Coronavirus
Rows of graves are prepared in Sixmile Cemetery in County Antrim (Niall Carson/PA)

Arlene Foster said: “This is about balancing public health concerns with the basic human need for people to visit their loved ones.”

Cemeteries are operated by Northern Ireland’s 11 local councils.

The Stormont Executive of ministers discussed the matter on Friday.

Sinn Fein was initially opposed to relaxing the closures, but faced pressure from unionists and the grieving who wanted to visit loved ones’ graves.

The republican party’s deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill said ministers “listened carefully to the genuine distress of families who have not been able to visit the grave of a loved one”.

She said: “I understand that there’s a fine balance and making sure that people do not face additional burden in terms of their mental health and wellbeing and also our role in making sure that people are not put at further risk from the transmission of coronavirus.”

Contact tracing of cases of infection is being rolled out across Northern Ireland next week.

The number of tests conducted is also being ramped up.

Mrs Foster cautioned against easing lockdown restrictions too quickly. The matter is due to be reviewed again next month.

She said: “Rather than placing the whole country into a permanent deep freeze, we will need to learn how to work and go about our business and observe social distancing.”

She warned they were not yet out of the woods.

“Trying to make a quick dash for the exit would be a mistake,” she added.

A third of coronavirus-related deaths are happening in care homes, figures indicated.

The Northern Ireland Statistical and Research Agency (Nisra) recorded 276 deaths involving Covid-19 up to April 17.

Of these, 60.1% occurred in hospitals, 33.7% in care homes, 5.1% at private addresses and 1.1% at hospices.

The figures are unrelated to the PHA’s daily total.

They measure the number of death certificates where Covid-19 was mentioned as a suspected cause.

Inclusion in the PHA’s tally of deaths requires a positive test for the infection.

Those showing symptoms and key workers are being prioritised for testing, and unions have been negotiating the use of NHS workers in private care homes.

Ministers said they were listening to the sector.

MOT closures
Since lock down began there has been a reduction in traffic flows of between 60 and 70% as the public heeded the call to stay indoors, Stormont infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said (Liam McBurney/PA) 

Mrs O’Neill said: “You are valued, we are so grateful for the work that you are involved in right now.

“We will continue to work around the clock to ensure that you have everything you need.”

Since lockdown began there has been a reduction in traffic flows of between 60-70% as the public heeded the call to stay indoors, Stormont infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon said.

A £17 million support package for ferries from the British Government and the Stormont Executive is intended to secure supplies of food, goods and medicine during the crisis.

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