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.
Garden centres are to be allowed to reopen and marriage ceremonies involving the terminally ill will be permitted as Northern Ireland starts to emerge from lockdown, the Executive decided today.
In the first of a series of announcements about the lifting of restrictions that have so far helped contain the spread of Covid-19, First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that from next Monday garden centres and ornamental plant nurseries will be open to customers.
Ministers agreed that all household recycling centres should be open to the public, with travel to them added to the list of appropriate reasons for journeys.
The Executive also decided that marriage ceremonies can take place where one of the partners or an immediate family member is terminally ill, with only a short time to live.
First Minister Foster told the Executive’s daily press briefing: “After eight weeks of lockdown, today’s announcement amounts to, we accept, very tentative first steps towards recovery. As we cautiously chart our way towards something approaching normality, we will need you to continue to work in partnership with us – and with the medical and scientific experts who advise us – to allow us to guide you on when it is safe to resume certain activities. Our roadmap will only succeed if everyone is patient, if you respect the advice of experts, if you continue to show discipline and compliance and if you maintain the collective will that has so far enabled us to escape the worst ravages of Covid-19. We have come a long way in following that advice and I am asking you to continue to do that.”
Ministers agreed today that the matrix upon which decisions to lift restrictions are taken will be published on the Department of Health website to help members of the public understand their rationale.
Deputy First Minister O’Neill explained: “Our ability to recover from Coronavirus will be a partnership. It will be a partnership effort involving every single member of society. As our partners in that recovery plan, it is right that we are open and honest with you about how we make our assessments and how we arrive at those important decisions on your behalf which is why we have agreed to publish the decision matrix. On Monday, we will move towards Step 1 in our phased recovery plan. We will come back to update you on further easements that can happen soon. As we move through this process of recovery, it is important to emphasise that any changes to the restrictions do not mean we can relax our behaviour in any way. The need for everyone to abide by the public health message is ever more important. We all have to remain vigilant against the threat of Covid-19 to protect ourselves, to protect our families and to protect the most vulnerable in society.”
Justice Minister Naomi Long and Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon also initiated today a process that will examine how free travel might be made available to victims fleeing domestic and sexual abuse during the COVID-19 emergency.
Following a meeting during which they both acknowledged the difficulty many victims of abuse would have with public health appeals for them to ‘stay at home’, Minister Long said: “I want anyone who is feeling afraid within their own home because of domestic abuse to know that they have not been forgotten, which is why I have been working along with partners to ensure that support, advice and accommodation can be made available as needed. By their very nature, domestic abuse situations can be explosive and unpredictable. We understand that this can be a dangerous time for individuals. Where possible we would encourage all affected by domestic abuse to contact support organisations, or the 24hr Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline, to seek help and support. In an emergency always contact the police. When someone is afraid, vulnerable and facing violence within their own home, it is important that they are able to get to a safe place as quickly as possible. I am hopeful that my discussions with Minister Mallon today around arrangements via public transport will help to make that happen.”
Minister Mallon added: “Victims of domestic abuse should not have to worry about how they can get to shelter, when fleeing a violent situation. That’s why I’m pleased to be working with Minister Naomi Long, in partnership, to see what my department can do to provide free transport for those in need. All families must be protected and despite the challenges of Covid-19 we must ensure that as a government we are responding to the needs of our citizens, particularly the most vulnerable and the most at risk. By joining forces, I hope Minister Long and myself can work with partners in Translink, the 24hr Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline, Men’s Advisory Project and Women’s Aid along with others – to find a solution that supports those families who find themselves in these difficult circumstances. Working together, we can do more, to protect and support our communities.”
Childcare providers were encouraged by the Education Minister Peter Weir and Health Minister Robin Swann to apply for the Executive’s £12million package of measures to support the sector.
Application forms for closed and open daycare and school aged childcare settings under the Covid-19 Childcare Support Scheme were issued on Wednesday 6 May and should be returned to the Business Services Organisation (BSO), while applications for childminders and the Bespoke Approved Home Childcare Scheme were issued on Thursday 7 May.
Minister Weir explained: “We established the Covid-19 Childcare Support Scheme to enable childcare providers to meet the needs of key workers and vulnerable children at this very difficult time and to provide support to daycare and school age childcare settings, which are not able to remain open. I know that it is essential that we get financial support to settings and to childminders without further delay and we are committed to doing that.”
Minister Swann added: “This will ensure that childcare can be provided to key workers when and where it is needed. It will also be a support mechanism for vulnerable families. However, as stressed before, where childcare is provided, it must be done in a way which is as safe as possible in public health terms. That is why any provider planning to stay open or reopen needs to contact their local Health and Social Care Trust Early Years Team urgently. Trust Early Years Teams are available to provide any advice needed, including advice on safe care. A high number of applications are expected and BSO will aim to process these as quickly as possible. It is important that application forms are completed accurately to reduce the risk of delays in any payments due.”
Northern Ireland’s food producers need the public’s continued support as they adapt to the new trading norms created by the Covid-19 pandemic, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots argued.
Minister Poots acknowledged how the agri-food sector had adapted to new ways of working, while producers also adjusted to the loss of business as a result of the closure of hospitality businesses.
Urging members of the public to support the industry during this critical time, the Minister said: “Northern Ireland’s food outlets, including convenience stores, supermarkets, the food-to-go and takeaway sector, have taken considerable steps to put social distancing measures in place and keep food on our plates. Two metre markings, limiting numbers and putting up protective perspex screens, has allowed our convenience and supermarket outlets to protect their staff and protect the public. I’d like to remind people that many food-to-go outlets and takeaways are also open, in the same way as other retail food outlets. They are using things like click and collect, online ordering and delivery channels only, to ensure they adhere to social distancing rules. I’d like to thank the NI food industry for adapting in this way and I’m sure this serves to reassure the public that they can purchase food safely from convenience stores, supermarkets, food-to-go and takeaways outlets.”
With more people remaining at home and cooking in their kitchens, Minister Poots urged consumers not to forget that takeaway and food-to-go services were also available and were helping the agri-food sector in a difficult economic climate.