Arlene Foster announces lockdown extended to April but some pupils set for school return

Northern Ireland’s lockdown has been extended to April, but some primary school pupils will return to class on March 8.

The Stormont Executive decided on Thursday to keep the majority of the current restrictions in place until April 1.

They had been due to lapse on March 5.

First Minister Arlene Foster said the route out of restrictions had to be slow and cautious to ensure there would be no return to lockdown.

“We’re now at a time for patience and persistence, we believe the best way to win the stage of our battle against Covid-19 is to dig in, to secure the position we hold, and then to slowly move forward,” she told a post-executive press conference in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.

Primary school pupils in year groups P1 to P3 will return to face-to-face learning on March 8.

Pre-school and nursery children will also return on that date.

Only vulnerable children and those of key workers have been in classrooms since January.

On March 22, secondary pupils in key exam years, year groups 12 to 14, will return to school.

The P1-P3 pupils will revert to remote learning for a week on that date, for the week prior to the Easter holidays, to minimise the impact on infection rates of years 12-14 returning.

No decisions have been taken on whether other year groups will return to class after the Easter holidays.

At Thursday’s Executive meeting, ministers also agreed a number of other minor relaxations.

On March 8, the numbers able to gather outdoors will increase from six to 10, from no more than two households.

Minister have also agreed to allow “click and collect” shopping, with payments made contactlessly, from some outlets previously categorised as non-essential retailers.

From March 8, click and collect will be permitted for shops selling baby equipment, clothing and footwear, and electrical goods.

Mrs Foster said the executive would publish a “decision making framework” for the executive’s exit from lockdown strategy on March 1.

The decision to extend the main lockdown restrictions to April 1 will be subject to a review on March 18.

Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy, who joined Mrs Foster for the press conference, said the region needed to take “baby steps” out of lockdown.

“It’s very clear we need to tread very carefully and when we do move out of the restrictions that small and gradual steps are crucial if we are going to remain on top of the virus,” he said.

“So we have to be driven not by dates but by the path of the pandemic and by the imperative of protecting the health service.”

Mrs Foster and Mr Murphy both expressed hope that the remaining school year groups could return to school after Easter but neither offered a guarantee, insisting it would be dependent on the public health situation.

They both also indicated that a return to classroom learning would be accompanied by bolstered safety and infection control measures, such as increased mask wearing and Covid-19 testing for older year groups.

Mrs Foster said: “It is clear that we must proceed with great care and with caution.

“We need our decisions to be both safe and sustainable.

“And I’m determined that through the proper sequencing of actions as we emerge from these restrictions that we leave lockdown in the rear view and that we do not step backwards again.”

Mr Murphy did raise some concern that people might interpret the latest extension date, which falls on Holy Thursday, as a signal that it would be OK to make plans for Easter without restrictions.

Mr Murphy urged them not to do so and instead await the outcome of the next lockdown review on March 18.

“I would advise people not to be looking at April 1 as the date that everything will be opening up again,” he said.

Since Christmas, people in Northern Ireland have only been able to leave home for essential purposes such as work or exercise.

The deaths of another six people diagnosed with Covid-19 were announced by Stormont’s Department of Health on Thursday, along with an additional 342 confirmed cases of the virus.

A total of 418 coronavirus hospital inpatients were recorded at midnight, 51 of whom were in intensive care.

Mr Murphy said inpatient numbers were still “very high”.

He said the lockdown exit strategy would provide more detail on how the region would chart a path back to normality.

The minister said: “While it’s not possible to provide the certainty that many people are undoubtedly seeking we do want to give people an indication of the sequencing of how the restrictions could be lifted when the time is right to do so and we hope next week to finalise our pathway out of the restrictions, which we will bring forward to the Assembly and the public as soon as possible.”

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