What is Northern Ireland’s COVID-19 recovery plan?

This article explains the Northern Ireland Executive’s COVID-19 recovery plan.

[It is part of the COVID-19 Information Dissemination (COVID-19 ID) Project — a partnership between Community Development and Health Network (CDHN) and FactCheckNI. Its aim is to improve people’s health literacy about COVID-19 by providing accurate and up-to-date information which will increase knowledge, understanding and confidence and enable people to make good health decisions.]

Northern Ireland’s COVID-19 recovery plan

On 12 May 2020, the Northern Ireland Executive launched their COVID-19 recovery plan, Coronavirus: Our Approach to Decision Making.

The document outlines a roadmap for relaxing COVID-19 related restrictions in Northern Ireland.

What are the new guidelines?

Many of the previous regulations remain in place. However, the new document outlines five steps in each sector for easing restrictions. Most, but not all of step 1 relaxations, across all sectors, have been announced on a case by case basis since the plan was published. The main phases in each sector are:


The regulations for businesses remain unchanged for now.

    • Steps 1 and 2 — encouragement of employees who cannot work from home to return to work in a phased manner, providing best practice arrangements are in place.
    • Steps 3 and 4 — a phased return to office and onsite working, subject to risk assessments; home working still encouraged.
    • Step 5 — everyone allowed back to work, however working from home encouraged where possible.

Business and Trade Union representatives are currently working with the Department of the Economy in an Engagement Forum, which has resulted in workplace safety guidelines, and a priority sector list. All returns to work depend on the successful implementation of safety mitigations in workplaces.


Retailers are currently restricted to online, delivery and takeaway services.

    • Step 1 — large outdoor retailers (such as garden centres) to open (although cafes must be takeaway or collection only);
    • Steps 2 and 3 — non-food retailers can open, with social distancing and risk assessments in place.
    • Step 4 — ‘contact’ retail, e.g. hairdressers, fitness studios, tattoo and piercing parlours, may open, with mitigations and risk assessments in place.
    • Step 5 — hospitality retail, e.g. cafes, restaurants and pubs, may open — on a limited basis at first.

Step 1 was taken on 18 May 2020.

From Monday, 8 June, business by outdoor non-food retailers will also be permitted, including new and used car retailers; retailers of light motor vehicles, lorries/trailers; retailers of caravans or motorhomes, and retailers of agricultural or other large machinery.

The conduct of business by non-food retail outlets with lower frequency customer visits and/or with a greater propensity for larger store areas is permitted, but only where those outlets have direct street access or direct access within a retail park.

From Friday, 12 June, the remainder of the ‘non-contact’ retail sector reopened.

From Monday, 15 June, the housing market reopened.

On 15 June 2020, the Executive indicated that from Friday, 3 July, the following may take place:

    • Restaurants, coffee shops and cafes will provisionally reopen, with indoor bars and pubs allowed to serve food and alcohol on a table service basis.
    • Pubs and bars with outdoor spaces would be permitted to operate an outdoors table service selling alcohol.
    • Hotel restaurants would also be allowed to reopen with hotel bars restricted to serving meals along with alcohol on a table service basis.
    • Hotels with outdoor spaces would also be permitted to sell alcohol in these spaces.

On 18 June 2020, the Executive announced that hairdressers and barbers would be able to reopen from Monday, 6 July.

On 25 June 2020, it was announced that the the following relaxations would take place, and will remain under review:

    • Reopening of arcades (Wednesday, 29 July).

On 2 July 2020, it was confirmed that the the following relaxations would go ahead:

    • reopening of betting shops (Friday, 3 July)
    • the re-opening of hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes and coffee shops (Friday, 3 July);
    • resumption of further close contact services including tattoo parlours, piercings and spas (Monday, 6 July); and
    • the re-opening of nail, hair, beauty, barbers, tanning salons, electrolysis and acupuncture (Monday, 6 July).

On 6 August 2020, the NI Executive paused an earlier plan and delayed the indicative date to reopen indoor pubs and bars selling only drink (known as ‘wet pubs’) until Thursday, 1 September. On 26 August, the NI Executive told the BBC that this reopening would not proceed.

On Thursday 10 September, the NI Executive announced an indicative date of Monday 21 September when wet pubs (pubs and bars that sell drink but don’t serve food) can reopen “providing circumstances permit and with strict adherence to guidance, regulation and appropriate enforcement”.


    • Step 1 — currently, only the children of certain key workers and some vulnerable students may attend school; this will also apply in step 1.
    • Step 2 — definition of key workers to be extended.
    • Step 3 — children in some (as yet undefined) priority cohorts may attend school part-time.
    • Step 4 — all children to attend school part-time with a mix of in-school and home learning.
    • Step 5 — full time “early years school provision” offered to all children.

On 15 June 2020, Economy Minister Diane Dodds has announced the partial reopening of further education (FE) colleges and work-based-learning providers to support the delivery of vocational qualifications this summer.

The Minister for Education announced plans on 18 June 2020, to help support vulnerable children and young people in July and August. The proposals include:

    • special schools summer provision;
    • youth services with priority given to key worker children; and
    • plans for a summer food scheme.

On 6 August 2020, the Executive announced that it had agreed the Education Minister’s plan for schools to return to more normal patterns of operation and attendance (“a full time basis of five days a week for every pupil, including those who attend Special Schools”) from the week beginning Monday, 31 August. The Minister, Peter Weir, also confirmed that schools will reopen for staff from next week and for key groups of pupils (years 8, 12 and 14) from Monday, 24 August.


Focuses on public transport, rather than travel outside of Northern Ireland.

    • Step 1 — currently, limited public transport is available with social distancing measures in place; passengers are encouraged to wear face coverings and avoid busy times; PPE for staff and enhanced cleaning of vehicles; walking and cycling encouraged; this will be maintained in step 1.
    • Steps 2 and 3 — all safety measures maintained as demand grows; walking and cycling encouraged.
    • Step 4 — continued home-working and staggered business opening times to help reduce and stabilise demand for public transport; walking and cycling encouraged.
    • Step 5 — full public transport service implemented, subject to risk assessment; walking and cycling encouraged.

On 8 June 2020 (21:25), the Executive Office repeated its advice that people should wear face coverings, including when using public transport, but this is not mandatory.

On 15 June 2020, Executive ministers confirmed that, depending on the rate of infection, caravan parks, camping sites and self-catering tourist accommodation would reopen on Friday, 26 June.

On 22 June 2020, it was announced by the Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon that there will be a phased return of MOT and driver testing services in the coming weeks.

On 25 June 2020, the Executive confirmed the following would be permitted:

    • Holiday and tourism accommodation, including holiday apartments, homes, cottages, bungalows, caravan parks and campsites (Friday, 26 June); and
    • Travel to stay in a second home from Friday, 26 June.

Family and community

Contact should currently be within people’s own household.

    • Step 1 — groups of four to six people from different households can meet outside, maintaining social distance; immediate family allowed indoors on the same basis, except for those who are shielding; churches allowed to operate on a ‘drive through’ basis or for private prayer in step 1.
    • Step 2 — groups of 10 people may meet outdoors with social distancing.
    • Step 3 — groups of 30 people may meet outdoors with social distancing.
    • Step 4 — church services allowed, with social distancing.
    • Step 5 — allows a wider range of gatherings, subject to social distancing measures.

On 18 May 2020, the Northern Ireland Executive announced that groups of up to six people could now meet outdoors, with social distancing. However, meeting immediate family indoors, even with social distancing, has not yet been declared safe (7:28; 16:25; 19:30).

On 4 June 2020, the Executive announced that from Monday, 8 June:

    • outdoors weddings with 10 people present are planned to be allowed in Northern Ireland;
    • those who are shielding will be able to spend time outside with people from their own household or a person from another household whilst ensuring social distancing is observed; and
    • people will be permitted to leave home to attend to the needs or welfare of an animal or animals.

From Friday, 12 June, outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people (Step 2) have been permitted. From this same date, the provision of day-care by places of worship and community centres has been facilitated.

From Saturday, 13 June, indoor visits have been permitted with one other household for those who live alone, but excluding people who have to shield.

On 18 June 2020, the Executive indicated that Monday, 29 June has been agreed for the resumption of religious services and the Executive will revisit this when it meets again on Thursday, 25 June.

The Executive also stated they will publish a Childcare Sector Recovery Plan, 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. This stepped plan includes childminders being able to provide childcare to four families in their homes at the one time from Monday, 29 June, with the expectation that childminders will be working to full capacity from September.

On 22 June 2020, the Executive announced that groups of up to six people, not from the same household, will be able to meet indoors, from Tuesday, 23 June. First Minister Arlene Foster stated: “It is recommended that social distancing should still be maintained, along with other mitigations such as ventilation and good hand hygiene.” Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the change was intended to allow informal childcare arrangements to resume.

From Monday, 6 July, people who have been “shielding” will be able to meet up to six people outside their homes, as long as social distancing is strictly maintained. In addition, people living alone and shielding can form a support bubble with one other household.

On 29 June 2020, the Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, announced that the limit to the number of people who could attend outdoor gatherings would increase from 10 to 30.

On 6 July 2020, the Executive Office announced that indoor weddings and baptisms could take place from Friday, 10 July. Marriage and civil partnership services in local government offices and other venues will also be able to resume from this date. This was ratified in an announcement on 9 July 2020.

On 23 July 2020, the Executive confirmed the following relaxations from Friday, 24 July:

    • The maximum number of people who can gather in a residential setting will increase from six to 10, with a requirement that they come from no more than four different households and an expectation that social distancing and other public health advice is observed;
    • Overnight stays in a different household will be permitted; and
    • Community centres (previously restricted to child care) can reopen.

In addition to this, Justice Minister Naomi Long announced that prison visits are to resume from Monday, 27 July.

On 20 August 2020, the Executive announced that from ‘next week’:

    • the number of people who can meet indoors will reduce from 10 down to “six people from two households”; and
    • the number that can participate in an outdoor gathering, including in a private garden, will reduce from 30 people down to 15. Certain events – including weddings, church services and sporting events – will be allowed more than 15 people in attendance, if a risk assessment is carried out and necessary measures are put in place.

On Thursday 10 September, the NI Executive agreed to introduce localised restrictions on social gatherings in homes. The restrictions apply to the Belfast City Council area, Ballymena town, and post code areas BT28, BT29 and BT43.

    • no mixing of households in private dwellings, with exemptions for bubbling with one other household, caring responsibilities including childcare, essential maintenance, supported living arrangements, visits required for legal or medical purposes, or marriage or civil partnerships where one partner is terminally ill
    • no more than six people to gather in a private garden from no more than two households
    • anyone living in these areas is asked to avoid unnecessary travel outside the restricted areas
    • care homes and hospitals in these areas will be advised to significantly curtail visits as soon as practicable—one member of a family will be permitted a visit once a week though more frequent visits may be  permitted in exceptional circumstances, including palliative care facilities and those receiving end of life care
    • medically vulnerable and older people living in these areas are asked to be particularly careful in following the advice on limiting household contacts, social distancing, hand washing and wearing a face covering, given the local levels of COVID-19.

Sport, cultural and leisure activities

Personal and household exercise only are currently allowed.

    • Step 1 — public spaces and outdoor sports amenities can open; non-contact sports such as walking, running, cycling, tennis, golf and some water activities permitted; drive through cinema possible.
    • Step 2 — re-opening of some libraries on a restricted basis; opening of open air museums.
    • Step 3 — teams may train again for non-contact sports; libraries, galleries and museums may open.
    • Step 4 — leisure centres can reopen; some sporting events may be allowed behind “closed doors,” or with a limited number of spectators.
    • Step 5 — close physical contact sports and full use of sporting facilities allowed; some live events, nightclubs and concerts allowed on a restricted basis.

As of 18 May 2020, the regulations were changed to allow step 1. This was confirmed at the 4 June 2020 press conference, with the Executive indicating outdoor sports facilities will be permitted to re-open from 8 June 2020.

From Monday, 15 June, the resumption of training by elite athletes has been permitted.

On 15 June 2020, the Executive indicated that visitor attractions such as museums, historic houses, culture and heritage venues, can also open from Friday, 3 July.

On 25 June 2020, it was announced that the the following relaxations would take place, and will remain under review until it can be ratified by the Executive ahead of the indicative date, based on the emerging situation:

    • Indoor training for elite and grassroots athletes (Monday, 29 June);
    • Resumption of contact sport training (Monday, 29 June);
    • Visitor attractions (Friday, 3 July);
    • Reopening of indoor gyms (Friday, 10 July);
    • Competitive sports (Friday, 17 July);
    • Limited numbers of outdoor spectators permitted (Friday, 17 July) with numbers increased at a later date (Friday, 31 July);
    • Reopening of indoor sports courts and skating rinks (Friday, 7 August);
    • Leisure centres and soft play areas (Friday, 7 August); and
    • Socially distanced indoor spectators permitted (Friday, 28 August).

On 9 July 2020, the NI Executive announced the following could re-open from Friday, 10 July:

    • indoor fitness studios and gyms;
    • bingo halls and amusement arcades;
    • outdoor leisure playgrounds, courts and gyms; and
    • cinemas.

In this announcement, they also gave an indication that from Saturday, 11 July, outdoor horse racing and equestrian competitions can resume. Outdoor competitive games and sporting events can also start again from this date.

Libraries will also be able to re-open from Thursday, 16 July, with social distancing measures in place.

The reopening of indoor sport and leisure facilities, including skating rinks and leisure centres will take place on Friday, 17 July, but will exclude swimming pools.

On 23 July 2020, the Executive announced the following will be able to reopen from Friday, 24 July:

    • Swimming pools in leisure centres, hotels and private facilities;
    • Bowling alleys; and
    • Wet treatments in spas, such as saunas, steam rooms and hydrotherapy pools will be permitted to resume.

In addition, from Friday, 24 July, spectators will also be enabled to attend outdoor competitive games with numbers to be determined by the venue in line with public health advice.

On 6 August 2020, ministers agreed to permit spectators to be present at indoor sporting venues from Monday, 10 August, if operators can control access and ensure adherence to social distancing. The Executive also indicated that theatres and concert halls can open to rehearse from Saturday, 8 August. An indicative date of 1 September 2020 was given for the return of audiences with appropriate mitigations. However, this plan was not ratified, and on 26 August, in a statement given to the BBC, the NI Executive indicated that “no further restrictions will be lifted at this time.”

On 3 September 2020, the NI Executive gave a new indicative date of Monday, 14 September for the reopening of soft play areas, and the date was ratified by the Executive on 10 September.

The Northern Ireland Executive’s summary of all the steps is available here.

When will each sector move to the next step?

The Northern Ireland Executive does not attach guidelines for the timing of the steps.

This approach differs from the Republic of Ireland Government who has attached indicative dates for moving between phases. The UK Government has also given projected dates to some measures in England, including the reopening of primary schools.

First Minister Arlene Foster said that the Northern Ireland roadmap does not answer every query, but it “provides people with an indication of how things might move in the weeks and months ahead”. Michelle O’Neill urged the public to “be patient”.

    • The steps will not necessarily move forward at the same speed. For example, step 1 for work may apply at a different time than step 1 for retail. If the transmission rate of the virus increases too quickly, it is possible that a sector may have to move a step backwards. It is also possible that measures within a step for a particular sector may not move at the same speed.
    • The Northern Ireland Executive will review the regulations every 21 days, and will announce any step changes as and when the scientific advice changes. It will use the time in between reviews to evaluate the impact of any relaxations that have been made.

The examples given for each of the steps are illustrations of the types of activity the Executive has in mind. They are not comprehensive, and may be adapted over time depending on scientific evidence.

How will the Northern Ireland Executive decide when to introduce new steps?

A central aim of the Northern Ireland Executive in deciding how to progress through the five steps is controlling virus transmission. They will use the R number to measure this. If each person with COVID-19 only infects one other person, then the value of R is 1.

The Northern Ireland Executive wants to ensure that the R number stays “at or below 1” throughout the process.

On 10 September 2020, the Department of Health said that the current estimate of R was within the banding 0.3–1.4. Chief Scientific Adviser Prof Ian Young acknowledged that the current estimate for R “is lower than it has been in previous weeks” and “it might be assumed that the position in Northern Ireland is improving, however this is not the case”. He added: “We’ve consistently said there are a range of indicators which need to be taken into account to assess the true position … The 7 day rolling average for new cases has increased, as has test positivity … It is clear overall that the epidemic continues to increase and that in particular there is an increase in community transmission.”

The roadmap document underlines that transmission of the virus will depend on a variety of factors, including the availability of testing, use of surveillance or tracking methodology (including apps) and contact tracing “for those who test positive for Coronavirus or who meet an appropriate clinical case definition”.

In addition to controlling transmission, the Executive has adopted the following principles:

    • Protecting healthcare capacity to ensure the healthcare system is not overwhelmed by a further wave of the pandemic. The aim is to be able to treat Coronavirus patients while phasing in the reintroduction of usual health and care services.
    • Necessity. No restriction will be kept in place longer than is necessary to protect public health.
    • Proportionality. Detrimental impacts of restrictions on health, society and the economy will be taken into account. In other words, the risks and the benefits of each restriction will be weighed up.
    • Reliance on evidence. Proposals for change or for keeping a restriction in place will be based on scientific evidence.

All decisions to move through the steps will be informed by these principles.

Whose guidance is the Northern Ireland Executive following?

Health is a devolved issue in the UK. The Northern Ireland Executive sets its own regulations with regard to COVID-19.

The new roadmap document underlines that the Executive has aligned its plan with the WHO guidelines of 24 April 2020.

It emphasises that there is close cooperation between the four regions of the UK, as well as between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

This article was originally published on 14 May 2020.

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