Irish Cup final to be Covid test event for NI’s emergence from lockdown

The Northern Ireland Executive has agreed to allow spectators to attend the Irish Cup final as a test event for emerging out of lockdown.

Stormont ministers met on Thursday to discuss further relaxations to the coronavirus regulations.

Up to 1,000 fans will be able to sign up to attend the clash at Mourneview Park Football Stadium in Lurgan, Co Armagh, on May 21.

Access will be strictly controlled and spectators, teams and staff will be required to take a Covid test before and after the match, with proof of a negative result to be provided on arrival.

Coronavirus – Fri Apr 30, 2021
Members of the public enjoy a drink and a meal in Belfast following the reopening of outdoor hospitality (Mark Marlow/PA)

The Executive also confirmed that reduced social distancing measures will be in place for the purposes of this event only. No food or beverages will be served.

As they met on Thursday, ministers heard that the data around the virus “continues to have a generally positive direction of travel”.

Indoor hospitality is set to reopen on May 24 with mitigations, subject to a review on May 20.

Mitigations include permitting up to six people to sit together, removing the restriction on the number of households they can be from.

Indoor visits in a domestic setting are also to be allowed involving six people from no more than two households and indoor visitor attractions including amusement arcades, bingo halls, museums, galleries and cinemas are to reopen from May 24.

Also from May 24, the Stay Local message is to be removed, numbers increased for indoor gatherings, numbers increased to 500 for outdoor gatherings, libraries are to reopen, and schools can resume extra-curricular activities, indoor extra-curricular sports, outdoor inter-schools sports and day educational visits.

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There is also to be a full return to outdoor sport and a return to indoor club training in squads from May 24, followed by a return to indoor competitive sport from May 31.

Meanwhile from June 21, restriction on audiences in seated theatres and concert halls and other venues will be removed and the return allowed of conferences and exhibitions. These decisions will be subject to review in June.

First Minister Arlene Foster described the Irish Cup test event as a “big win for people of all ages who have missed the shared experience of an outdoor match, concert or show”.

“The staging of this learning event will provide a valuable opportunity to gather learning which will inform our plans for the safer return of all types of large audience-based events,” she said.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill added: “We are fully committed to bringing back those aspects of life that people have missed so much over the last year. We know that for many families and friends, attending matches or events is an important part of their lives.

“I commend all those involved in the project, but most importantly I want to thank the supporters who will sign up to play a key role in ensuring future events can take place as safely as possible.”

Irish FA chief executive Patrick Nelson said it is a “pivotal moment on the journey back to normality”.

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“We are delighted that football can play its part. We have worked closely with our partners in the NI Executive and the Department for Communities, and will do likewise with the two clubs who reach the final,” he said.

“We understand the significance of this increase in spectators for the final and also the importance of all attendees playing their part by adhering to the guidelines laid out and following the Covid testing requirements.

“We are confident that this event will help further the case for increasing spectator numbers not just for football but for other sports and events across Northern Ireland, which is something everyone wants.”

Earlier, one further death of a patient who had previously tested positive for coronavirus in Northern Ireland was notified.

The Department of Health also counted 99 new positive cases of the virus in the last 24-hour period.

On Thursday morning there were 46 inpatients in hospital who were Covid positive, of whom three were in intensive care.