Stormont ministers to decide on easing coronavirus restrictions

Stormont ministers will decide later whether to press ahead with further Covid-19 rule relaxations amid a warning the Delta variant now accounts for around 75% of Northern Ireland’s cases.

A delayed round of measures originally scheduled for June 21 is currently earmarked for July 5, but only if the Executive green lights the steps at Thursday’s meeting.

The relaxations include the return of live music across the hospitality sector; the reopening of theatres and indoor seated venues; the resumption of conferences and exhibitions; and increases in the numbers permitted to gather in indoor and outdoor domestic settings.

Ministers will also consider whether to lift a 500 limit on the size of outdoor non-domestic gatherings, potentially replacing the cap with a risk assessment model.

Allowing walk-in appointments for close contact services and permitting residential stays for youth summer camps are also among measures due to be assessed by the powersharing administration.

PA Media understands that Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey will present a paper to fellow ministers calling for an “urgent” financial package for the culture, arts and heritage sector.

Deirdre Hargey
Deirdre Hargey is expected to call for immediate financial assistance for the arts and culture sector (Liam McBurney/PA)

The minister will relay views from a taskforce she set up for the sector, in particular its concerns over the negative impact any further delay to relaxations would have.

The Executive discussions on Thursday will be informed by the latest assessment of rising case numbers by Department of Health experts.

PA understands the weekly paper from the officials will confirm that the Delta variant now accounts for in excess of 70% of all cases.

It will estimate that the reproduction number of the virus is above 1, within a range of between 1.2 and 1.6.

The paper will also flag that hospital admissions in the region have doubled in the last week, albeit it they remain at a relatively low level. It will state that ICU occupancy and deaths are also at a “very low level”.

There were 375 confirmed new cases of Covid-19 reported in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, the highest daily total in the region since February.