Northern Ireland reveals five-stage lockdown exit plan | Politics

The Northern Ireland government has announced a plan for easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions that for now keeps the “stay home” message.

The Stormont executive published a five-stage road map on Tuesday that showed a slower, more cautious strategy than Downing Street’s plan for England.

Ministers rejected Boris Johnson’s “stay alert” slogan, which has been widely criticised as confusing, and also decided against setting projected dates for loosening restrictions.

The plan broadly aligned Northern Ireland with Scotland and Wales, which have also rejected Downing Street’s Johnson’s new messaging.

“We will not be driven by a timetable and we know some will be disappointed by that, but our roadmap doesn’t answer every query, it provides people with an indication of how things might move in the weeks and months ahead,” said Arlene Foster, the first minister and Democratic Unionist party (DUP) leader.

Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minister and Sinn Féin deputy leader, asked the public for patience. “When we’re in position to slowly and carefully move out of the lockdown, we will keep you updated every step of the way,” she said.

The power-sharing executive last week extended Northern Ireland’s lockdown to 28 May and said it would avoid specifying dates for each of the five stages to have “sufficient flexibility” to modify the plan in line with scientific advice.

In the first stage, groups of four to six people who do not share a household may meet outdoors while maintaining physical distancing.

Churches will be allowed to open for private prayer and hold drive-through services. Big outdoor-based retailers such as garden centres will also be allowed to reopen.

In stage two, certain types of non-food retailers can open, as can some libraries and open-air museums. In stage four, hairdressers, fitness studios and tattoo parlours can reopen and schools will open for all children on a part-time basis, blending in-school and remote learning. Cafes, restaurants and pubs will have to wait until step five to reopen.

The DUP and Sinn Féin sparred in the early stages of the pandemic – Sinn Féin wanted to close schools before Downing Street recommendations – but now present a united front in steering a policy that in several aspects sets Northern Ireland apart from the Republic of Ireland as well as England.

The blueprint detailed the scientific and health criteria that must be met for moving to each of the five stages. A key criterion will be the R-value, or reproduction number, which is estimated at 0.8-0.9. Authorities want to push it lower before easing restrictions.

Northern Ireland has registered 438 coronavirus-related deaths, a per capita rate significantly below that of England and on par with Ireland.

However, the Unite union has warned that the devastating toll in Northern Ireland’s care homes could be repeated in meat-packing plants unless there is mass testing and deep cleaning.

A worker based at a Moy Park plant in Dungannon died after contracting coronavirus, part of what the union said was a cluster in mid-Ulster.

The republic is to begin its own five-stage lockdown exit plan on 18 May, with intervals of three weeks.

Critics have accused authorities in Belfast and Dublin of paying lip-service to coordination instead of forging an all-island strategy, as happened with previous disease outbreaks involving animals.

Some of the republic’s highest infection rates are in counties along the 310-mile border, fuelling concern about possible spillover.

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