Coronavirus infection rate ‘too high’ to ease lockdown in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland’s coronavirus infection rate is still too high to ease lockdown restrictions, Stormont’s leaders have said.
Ministers in the power-sharing executive agreed on Thursday to extend the current regulations enforcing social distancing for a further three-week period.
First Minister Arlene Foster said there may be “minor” adjustments to the rules next week.
The total number of coronavirus deaths in Northern Ireland is now 422, up four on Wednesday.
Total confirmed cases rose to 3,984 on Thursday, up 50 on the previous day.
Ministers also held further discussions on the region’s coronavirus recovery plan but did not finalise the blueprint.
They hope to publish a plan setting out a phased recovery next week.
At the Executive meeting, the coalition administration also agreed to issue advice to people in Northern Ireland to wear face coverings in enclosed spaces where they encounter challenges with social distancing.
Mrs Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said there is agreement around the Executive on the shape of the recovery plan and the decision to extend the regulations.
The two leaders also discussed the UK-wide picture on a call with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday afternoon.
Mrs Foster said the region’s reproductive rate (RO) – the number of people an infected person infects – is currently at 0.8.
She said that is higher than some areas in England it needs to be driven down before the region can move to relax measures.
“It is not yet as far below one as we would like it to be,” she told the daily Covid-19 briefing at Stormont.
“And we recognise that our approach needs to be flexible and adaptable to change.
“Next week, we will consider a number of minor adjustments to the restrictions and indeed to their interpretation.”
Ms O’Neill said she knew people would be “disappointed” by the announcement but she said the region is still on a “knife-edge” in efforts to suppress the disease.
“We’re still very much in the response (stage), we’re still in the fightback against Covid-19 but we’re also in the space where we’re planning for the recovery,” she said.
“And that’s the light at the end of the tunnel which we know that everybody wants to be able to see.
“So we reviewed all the regulations, we reviewed everything that we’ve been asking you to do right now.
“And we did that based on the scientific evidence that was available to us and all the medical evidence.”
She added: “That means that we’re not in a position today that we’re able to move on any of those regulations or we’re not able to relax anything at this time.
“We’re still on a knife-edge in terms of our fightback.”
On the Executive’s decision to advise the use of face coverings, Mrs Foster the move is designed to increase community confidence.
She said: “Now it is important to differentiate between the use of face masks manufactured for a clinical setting and face coverings which are often homemade or natural clothing items used by individuals in day to day life.
“And we are focused on face coverings.”
While there has been speculation the UK Government may be planning to change the emphasis of its messaging away from stay at home, Mrs O’Neill said that is still very much the line in Northern Ireland.
“The message should be stay at home, the message is stay at home and that needs to continue here and there can be no room for confusion, we don’t need a confused picture,” she said.
Mrs Foster predicted Boris Johnson will not shift significantly from that message when he makes his address, suggesting some media outlets in London had “exaggerated” what will be announced on Sunday.
“I don’t think the Prime Minister will be moving dramatically away from that stay at home message, that is certainly what I got from him on our call today,” she said.