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

This explainer article details the Northern Ireland Executive’s COVID-19 recovery plan. Last changed on Thursday 15 October 2020, this article is no longer being updated. Please refer to the NI Direct website for information about the latest restrictions.

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

What is the Northern Ireland circuit breaker?

On 14 October 2020, The Executive Office published an update to the list of regulatory (enforceable) measures as well as additional health guidance.

For a period of four weeks, starting at 6pm on Friday 16 October, the following will be in effect:

    • Support bubbles are limited to 10 people from two households
    • No overnight stays in a private home unless in a bubble
    • Hospitality sector to close (except for takeaway/delivery)
    • Fast food to close nightly at 11pm
    • No sale of alcohol (in off-licences and supermarkets) after 8pm
    • Retail remains open with emphasis on mitigations
    • No mass events involving more than 15 people
    • No close-contact services, including hairdressers and beauticians (health needs excluded)
    • No indoor sport; no organised outdoor sport involving mixing of households (exception for elite athletes)
    • Gyms open for individual training only
    • Churches remain open (face masks mandatory on entering/leaving)
    • Funerals limited to 25 people with no gatherings before or afterwards
    • Weddings limited to 25 people (from Monday 19 October)
    • Advised not to travel unnecessarily
    • Advised to work from home
    • Universities and further education advised to deliver distance learning as much as possible

In addition, the school half term holiday will be extended, beginning on Monday 19 October and reopening on Monday 2 November.


Northern Ireland’s COVID-19 recovery plan (12 May 2020) 

Following on from the original lockdown regulations, a new COVID-19 recovery plan—The Coronavirus: Our Approach to Decision Making—was issued by the Northern Ireland Executive on 12 May 2020 and outlined five steps by sector for easing restrictions. The main phases in each sector were:

Work

    • Steps 1 and 2encouragement 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 4a phased return to office and onsite working, subject to risk assessments; home working still encouraged.
    • Step 5everyone allowed back to work, however working from home encouraged where possible.

An Engagement Forum between Business and Trade Union representatives and the Department of the Economy produced workplace safety guidelines, and a priority sector list. Returning to work would depend on the successful implementation of safety mitigations in workplaces.

Retail

In the initial phase of ‘lockdown”, retailers were currently restricted to online, delivery and takeaway services. 

    • Step 1large outdoor retailers (such as garden centres) to open (although cafes must be takeaway or collection only);
    • Steps 2 and 3non-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 5hospitality retail, e.g. cafes, restaurants and pubs, may open—on a limited basis at first.

Education

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

Travel 

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

    • Step 1currently, 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 3all safety measures maintained as demand grows; walking and cycling encouraged.
    • Step 4continued home-working and staggered business opening times to help reduce and stabilise demand for public transport; walking and cycling encouraged.
    • Step 5full public transport service implemented, subject to risk assessment; walking and cycling encouraged.

Family and community

The initial lockdown phase restricted contact to within people’s own household. 

    • Step 1groups 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 2groups of 10 people may meet outdoors with social distancing.
    • Step 3groups of 30 people may meet outdoors with social distancing. 
    • Step 4church services allowed, with social distancing.
    • Step 5allows a wider range of gatherings, subject to social distancing measures. 

Sport, cultural and leisure activities

Initially only personal and household exercise were allowed. 

    • Step 1public 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 2re-opening of some libraries on a restricted basis; opening of open air museums.
    • Step 3teams may train again for non-contact sports; libraries, galleries and museums may open. 
    • Step 4leisure centres can reopen; some sporting events may be allowed behind “closed doors,” or with a limited number of spectators. 
    • Step 5close physical contact sports and full use of sporting facilities allowed; some live events, nightclubs and concerts allowed on a restricted basis. 

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


Did the recovery plan have indicative dates?

The Northern Ireland Executive did not attach guidelines for the timing of the steps. This approach differed from the Republic of Ireland Government government who gave indicative dates for moving between phases. At the time, the UK Government gave projected dates for 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 would not necessarily move forward at the same speed in each sector. 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 would review the regulations every 21 days, and announce any step changes as and when the scientific advice changed. It would use the time in-between reviews to evaluate the impact of any relaxations that had been made.

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

Controlling virus transmission and the R number was to be central to the Executive’s decision making. If each person with COVID-19 only infects one other person, then the value of R is 1. The Executive wanted the R number to stay “at or below 1” throughout the process.

The document underlined that transmission of the virus would 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 adopted the following principles:

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

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 roadmap document underlined that the Executive aligned its plan with the WHO guidelines of 24 April 2020. It emphasised that there was close cooperation between the four regions of the UK, as well as between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.


What happened next?

Large outdoor retailers (eg, garden centres) reopened on 18 May 2020.

An Executive press conference on 4 June confirmed that outdoor sports facilities could re-open from 8 June 2020. And elite athletes could resume training from Monday 15 June.

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

    • outdoor weddings with 10 people present would be permitted;
    • those who were shielding could spend time outside with people from their own household or a person from another household whilst ensuring social distancing was observed; and
    • people would be permitted to leave home to attend to the needs or welfare of animals.

From Monday 8 June, outdoor non-food retailers could operate, including new and used vehicle dealers. Non-food retail outlets with lower frequency customer visits that had direct street access or direct access within a retail park were allowed to open.

From Friday 12 June, the remainder of the ‘non-contact’ retail sector reopened, followed by the housing market on Monday 15 June. 

Also from Friday 12 June, outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people (Step 2) were permitted. From this same date, the provision of day-care by places of worship and community centres was allowed. And from Saturday 13 June, indoor visits were permitted with one other household for those who live alone, but excluding people who have to shield.

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

The Executive indicated that visitor attractions such as museums, historic houses, culture and heritage venues, can also open from Friday 3 July.

On 15 June 2020, the Executive indicated that from Friday 3 July, indoor bars and pubs could reopen to serve food and alcohol on a table service basis; hotel restaurants would also be allowed to reopen with hotel bars restricted to serving meals along with alcohol on a table service basis; and pubs and bars with outdoor spaces would be permitted to operate an outdoors table service selling alcohol.

On 18 May 2020, the 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, was not declared safe (7:28; 16:25; 19:30).

On 18 June 2020, the Executive indicated their plan to allow religious services to resume from Monday 29 June, and this was confirmed at their meeting on Thursday 25 June. The Executive stated what they would 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 would include 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 would be working at full capacity from September.

The Minister for Education announced plans on 18 June 2020, to help support vulnerable children and young people in July and August with special schools summer provision, along with youth services with priority given to key worker children, and plans for a summer food scheme.

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

Groups of up to six people, not from the same household, were allowed 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.

On 25 June 2020, the Executive confirmed permission from Friday 26 June for:

    • holiday and tourism accommodation, including holiday apartments, homes, cottages, bungalows, caravan parks and campsites; and
    • travel to stay in a second home. 

On 25 June 2020, it the following relaxations were announced, and would remain under review until it could 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 to be 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 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 2 July 2020, the following relaxations were confirmed:

    • reopening of betting shops (Friday 3 July)
    • 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).

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

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 could also resume from this date. These indicative announcements were ratified on 9 July 2020.  

On 9 July 2020, the NI Executive announced that cinemas, indoor fitness studios and gyms, bingo halls, amusement arcades, outdoor leisure playgrounds, courts and gyms could reopen from Friday 10 July.  They also indicated that outdoor horse racing and equestrian competitions could resume from Saturday 11 July. Outdoor competitive games and sporting events could also recommence from this date. 

Libraries could 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 took place on Friday 17 July, but excluded swimming pools.

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

    • the maximum number of people who could gather in a residential setting would 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 was observed;
    • overnight stays in a different household would be permitted; and
    • community centres (previously restricted to child care) could reopen.

On 23 July 2020, the Executive announced the reopening from Friday 24 July of:

    • swimming pools in leisure centres, hotels and private facilities; 
    • bowling alleys; and
    • wet treatments in spas, such as saunas, steam rooms and hydrotherapy pools. 

Additionally, from Friday 24 July, spectators would be permitted to attend outdoor competitive games with numbers to be determined by the venue in line with public health advice.

And Justice Minister Naomi Long announced that prison visits would resume from Monday 27 July. 

On 6 August 2020, the 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 Executive told the BBC that this delayed reopening would not proceed.

On 6 August 2020, the Executive announced that it had agreed with the Education Minister’s plan for schools to return to more normal patterns of operation and attendance (on “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 would reopen to staff from the next week and to key groups of pupils (years 8, 12 and 14) from Monday 24 August.

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

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

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

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

On Thursday 10 September, the Executive agreed to introduce localised restrictions on social gatherings in homes. The restrictions applied to the Belfast City Council area later extended to Greater Belfast, including parts of Dundonald and Carryduff), Ballymena town, and postcode 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 asked to avoid unnecessary travel outside the restricted areas;
    • care homes and hospitals in these areas advised to significantly curtail visits as soon as practicable—one member of a family permitted a visit once a week though more frequent visits might be permitted in exceptional circumstances, including palliative care facilities and those receiving end of life care; and
    • medically vulnerable and older people living in these areas 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.

The Executive also announced an indicative reopening date for ‘wet pubs’ (pubs and bars that sell drink but don’t serve food)—Monday 21 September

On Thursday 17 September, the Executive confirmed a new indicative date of Wednesday 23 September for the reopening of ‘wet pubs’ subject to new safe-guarding regulations being put in place.  Venues would be required to:

    • clearly display the number of people who can be safely accommodated;
    • make available hand sanitisation;
    • collect customer details to assist with the Test, Trace, Protect contact tracing programme;
    • serve customers seated at tables with no more than six people from any number of households at a table (children aged 12 and under discounted from the total, and more than six allowed if all from the same household).

Face coverings were to be mandatory when customers entered and left venues and for movement inside but not required once seated. No standing and no service at the bar. And no dancing.

On Thursday 17 September, Health Minister, Robin Swan, announced that people living in the BT60 postcode area (around Armagh including Killylea, Tynan, Belcoo, Middletown, Keady, Darkley, Markethill, Kingsmills) would also be subject to localised restrictions from 5pm on Friday 18 September.

On Monday 21 September, the Executive agreed to extend the localised restrictions right across all of Northern Ireland, coming into effect at 6pm on Tuesday 22 September.

On Tuesday 29 September, First Minister Arlene Foster told the Northern Ireland Assembly that “a closing time of 11.00pm should be applied to the hospitality sector”.  The so-called ‘curfew’ would come into effect from midnight on Wednesday 30 September, and “apply to those parts of the hospitality sectors subject to current regulations, including pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes as well as hotel and guest house bars”. All businesses that serve food or drink in England, Scotland and Wales had been required to shut at 10pm since Thursday 24 September.

On Thursday 1 October, the Executive agreed to introduce  further localised restrictions in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area ‘as soon as possible’ (ie, as soon as the legislative changes could be drafted).

    • Outdoor gatherings permitted, up to a maximum of 15 people.
    • No indoor gatherings where people from different households were mixed (with exceptions for weddings, wedding receptions, funerals, and post-funeral gatherings, services of worship in churches, individual exercise (but no exercise classes), workplaces where working from home is not possible, schools and colleges, managed youth and childcare services.
    • Hospitality venues could only remain open for take-away, delivery and outdoor dining.
    • Wet pubs only to serve customers outdoors.
    • All museums, galleries and cultural attractions to close, and libraries only operating a call and collect service.

On Thursday 8 October 2020, the Executive agreed to extend places where face coverings would be mandatory (2:19), including:

    • workers in retail shops
    • in taxis and private buses
    • while boarding planes
    • in banks and post offices
    • visiting government buildings
    • driving instructors and their students