The Executive has today agreed that cemeteries will be allowed to open on a restricted basis.
An amendment has been agreed to The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 that will allow family members to visit the graves of their loved ones while adhering to social distancing.
Changes will be made to the Regulations later this evening. However, those responsible for burial grounds will need time to prepare so that they can put in place the necessary arrangements to manage access safely.
First Minister Arlene Foster said: “This Executive has asked the people of Northern Ireland to put their normal daily routine on hold; to stay at home, keep their distance and wash their hands in the fight against Covid-19. This has been an extraordinary ask in what are extraordinary times and the vast majority have complied with the regulations which has helped to flatten the curve of infection and save lives.
“Changes to the regulations, even modest changes, must be criteria-led and supported by scientific evidence.
“On that basis, the Executive has today agreed to open up cemeteries on a restricted basis so that family members can visit the graves of their loved ones while adhering to social distancing. This will bring comfort to many at these difficult times.”
The deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill said: “We are all very mindful of people’s mental health at this time and we recognise the comfort that visiting the graveside of a loved one brings. That’s why we had committed to keeping this issue under review.
“We also recognise that there is a fine balance in making sure that people do not face additional burden in terms of their mental health and wellbeing; and making sure that people are not put at further risk from transmissions of Coronavirus.
“The limited opening of cemeteries will only be allowed where those in charge of those burial grounds can ensure compliance with the regulations and appropriate social distancing.
“As with all the regulations, which are in place to protect people and save lives, we will continue to keep this decision under review.”
Health Minister Robin Swann welcomed the changes to the Regulations.
He said: “The Coronavirus Regulations are cross-cutting, significant and controversial and any amendment must be discussed and agreed by the Executive.
“The change we have agreed, informed by the expert advice from the Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride and Chief Scientific Officer, Ian Young, strike the balance between protecting public health and not inflicting further suffering on individuals.
“There are a number of people in our community who get great reassurance, mental support and strength by visiting a grave and this step now is a proportionate and empathetic response at this time.”
The Executive has also agreed to amend the Regulations to clarify the circumstances in which a person can leave the house to exercise, including reasonable travel to exercise.
For example, a drive to a safe space or facility would be permitted. However, taking a long drive to get to a beach, or resort where numbers of people may gather is unlikely to be regarded as reasonable, even for exercise.