Significant changes for families, children, young people and some of the most vulnerable in society have been agreed today by the Executive.
Progress has been made towards schools returning to normal, with the first pupils going back on August 24. There are plans to run summer schemes for children with special educational needs and youth service summer programmes for the children of some key workers.
A summer food scheme will be established for those children who normally receive free school meals during term time.
And for the 95,000 people across Northern Ireland who received shielding letters, they are being informed that it is no longer necessary to follow that advice from the end of July and that instead, they should follow the same guidance as those considered vulnerable. Those who are currently shielding will received further communication and advice next week.
The Executive has also agreed to 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 June 29 with the expectation that childminders will be working to full capacity from September.
Preparations for the re-opening of places of worship for services are also at an advanced stage after First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill met with a representative group of faith leaders yesterday.
An indicative date on June 29 has been agreed for the resumption of religious services and the Executive will revisit this when it meets again next Thursday.
In advance of that meeting, the CMO has offered to meet with the faith leaders to consider issues for funerals, weddings, christenings and other celebrations. There will also be a further opening up of the business sector, with an indicative date of July 6 for the re-opening of hairdressers and barbers, marking further progress for the economy and supporting well-being.
Detailed guidance is being developed on all the relaxations and will be published in advance of the changes. The Executive will continue to keep all changes under regular review and will measure the impact against the current transmission rate of the virus in the community.
The Executive also reminded the public that they should continue to follow the public health advice by adhering to social distancing rules, continue to practice good hand and respiratory hygiene to stay safe and save lives.
First Minister Arlene Foster said: “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.
“The Executive has always recognised the sacrifices people have made since we introduced these draconian regulations. That has been hard for so many, not least those who were advised to shield many weeks ago. There is some hope for them today as we signal that shielding will pause at the end of July.
“We have also been able to move forward on a number of steps to help families, with progress made towards schools reopening. This is a crucial area of work for the entire Executive and in the weeks ahead, detailed guidance will be developed and published to allow our children to get back to school.
“A number of programmes are planned for over the summer to help vulnerable children and young people and in childcare, we are moving to return this crucial sector to pre-Covid-19 capacity as quickly and safely as possible.
“We have also agreed that no child should go hungry and will roll out a summer food scheme for children who receive free school meals during term time.
“Covid-19 has had a profound impact on all aspects of our society, including our places of worship. Faith is a deeply personal and important issue for many of us and this has been a difficult time for those who have had their normal practice of worship interrupted. We hope to be in a position next week to confirm that services can commence from June 29.
“While the package of relaxations agreed today is good news for families and the most vulnerable, it will also be welcomed by the business community.
“Earlier this week we agreed indicative dates for the opening up of the hospitality and tourism sector and from early July, our hairdressers will open their doors to welcome back clients.
“While these will be momentous occasions, we all know it won’t look or be the same as it was before Covid-19. In many ways that underlines the reality of the position we find ourselves, that while we have made great progress, the virus is still in the community.
“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 said: “Today the Executive has been able to continue with the positive momentum on our pathway to recovery and we have agreed a package of measures to support families, children, young people and the most vulnerable.
“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.
“I have also spoken to many parents who want to return to work but are unable to at this time because of childcare arrangements. The Executive has taken an important step forward today in meeting those demands and is committed to returning this sector to its full capacity as quickly and safely as possible.
“In addressing the impacts of this emergency, the Executive has prioritised support for the vulnerable, including those living in poverty and we were able to provide financial support for families through a free school meals scheme during term time.
“However, no child should have to go hungry over the summer and it is right that the Executive has agreed a package that will see meals provided to those children over the summer months.”
“The provision of a food parcel service for those most in need has been a real lifeline to vulnerable people during the emergency response and the Communities Minister yesterday confirmation that vulnerable people who are also medically shielding will continue to receive a food box until the end of July, ensuring they continue to receive this vital support.
“The announcement for the thousands across the north who are shielding will be greeted with mixed emotions and many will be anxious about the future. I know that work is ongoing to develop detailed advice to each individual who has been shielding since March and the Executive will continue to support the most vulnerable across society.
“In addition to confirming the reopening of tourist accommodation, bars, pubs and restaurants, the latest easements in our rolling programme of relaxations includes the reopening of hairdressers and barbers. This has been a key concern for the public since we embarked on our recovery plan and people will be pleased to know that they can now visit hair salons and barbers from July 6.”
Health Minister Robin Swann said: “The evidence on the prevalence of Covid-19 in our community has indicated that we are in a position to gradually lift more restrictions and make the necessary amendments to the Coronavirus Regulations.
“While we can all be encouraged that we are moving, step-by-step through our recovery plan, we must remember that none of the relaxations agreed by the Executive to date are guaranteed. None of us want to have to re-impose any restriction in the future but we will if we have to.
“The scientific and medical advice is very clear that this virus is volatile and our ability to control it will depend on everyone continuing to follow the public health advice, continuing to wash your hands and keep a safe distance from others. We urge everyone to keep this in mind and take the necessary action to keep themselves and others safe.”