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.

At the end of April, FactCheckNI published an explainer article about the existing ‘lockdown’ rules for 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:

Work

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.

Retail

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.

As of 18 May 2020, step 1 is now in place.

From 8 June 2020, large retailers such as car showrooms and shops in retail parks are also planned to be allowed to reopen..

Education

    • 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.

Secondary and tertiary level education are not specifically mentioned in the steps.

Travel

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.

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).

From 8 June 2020 (2:48; 9:58), outdoors weddings with 10 people present are planned to be allowed in Northern Ireland.

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 have been changed to allow step 1.

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 three weeks, 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 next full review of the guidelines will be on 28 May 2020.

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.

The roadmap states that the community transmission rate, R, in Northern Ireland was approximately 0.8 at the time of publication.

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.