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Executive Daily Update: Initiatives to deal with Coronavirus (18 June 2020)

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Northern Ireland Executive ministers and their officials have over the past 24 hours been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.

Shielding during the Covid-19 lockdown may be paused on 31 July for 95,000 people with underlying health conditions, Executive ministers signalled today.

The announcement was part of a series of measures approved by ministers as Northern Ireland continues to make progress in the battle to suppress the levels of Covid-19.

Provided the virus remains under control, First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill also confirmed:

– Places of worship may reopen for religious services on 29 June. The Chief Medical Officer will meet the faith leaders group on 25 June to consider how funerals, weddings, christenings and other celebrations may be conducted.

– Pupils in Years 7, 12 and 14 will return from 24 August on a phased basis to their schools who will plan on the basis of pupils observing 1 metre distancing when they return.

– The Eat Well, Live Well programme will ensure children who receive free school meals will have at least one good meal during the summer holidays during July and August.

– With the end of the school year approaching, there will be the limited resumption of youth summer programmes prioritising children with educational needs and the children of key workers.

– Hairdressers, barbers and nail bars may open provisionally from 6 July.

– A Childcare Sector Recovery Plan will also be published to restore the sector to pre-Covid-19 levels as quickly and safely as possible to enable working parents to return to their places of employment.

With the R rate sitting between 0.6 and 0.9, First Minister Foster said of the further relaxations: “This is a hugely significant day for the Executive as we make major strides along our roadmap to recovery. We have today agreed to a number of relaxations that go right to the heart of supporting families, young people and some of the most vulnerable in society. We still have a way to go on our recovery journey but by sticking to the public health advice, we hope to be able to continue to make headway in the weeks and months ahead.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill added: “The re-opening of our schools will be a great relief for families. Parents have had to home school over the last few months and I know many pupils have missed meeting up with their classmates. The re-opening will be on a phased basis and it is important that the conversations continue with those who have the shared goal of giving all our children the very best education possible so that the disruptions can be kept to a minimum. The summer schemes for children with educational needs and those of some key workers is also important and reinforces the Executive’s commitment to supporting families during these most difficult of times.”

Health Minister Robin Swann confirmed letters will be issued in the coming days to those shielding about the new arrangements which may come into force from 31 July.

While the Minister said the announcement would be welcomed by many of those impacted, some people may view the prospect of ending the protective measures with some anxiety and they should decide what to do at their own pace.

Minister Swann said: “As is so often the case at present, this will be about weighing up the options and making informed choices. Going outside can bring some degree of potential risk but this can be mitigated and minimised by strict social distancing. Staying indoors indefinitely is not good for anyone’s mental or physical health. Finally, I would ask everyone to be considerate as people end their periods of shielding. We should all continue to social distance, but in the coming weeks I want you to be particularly understanding of the fact you might be encountering someone who has had to stay at home for many weeks. Please be aware of this, show respect and kindness to all and keep your distance.”

In addition to special schools provision over the summer and key worker children being given priority on youth schemes, Education Minister Peter Weir revealed he was considering bringing forward projects to support learning for children over the summer and beyond, subject to funding.

Minister Weir said: “I want to give as many pupils as possible the opportunity to access learning over the summer months. To that end, I am setting out a range of proposals which will include virtual classrooms and short summer schools for P5, P6 and P7 children, where schools wish to run them. My department and I will continue to engage with school leaders, teachers and the youth service on how we might best support these measures, the uptake of which will be purely on a voluntary basis. I will also bring forward a project called ‘Engage’ to provide literacy and numeracy support; mental health interventions and the widening of nurture support for the 2020/21 academic year for primary and post-primary schools in socially deprived areas. Our children and young people need our support more than ever and I hope these steps will help them as we continue to find our way through these very difficult times.”

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