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Coronavirus: Stormont gives green light to more lockdown easing

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Small outdoor weddings will be allowed in Northern Ireland from Monday, ministers have agreed
The easing of more lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland has been given the green light by the Stormont Executive.The move, which was expected, was dependent on the R-number staying below one when ministers met on Thursday.From Monday, vulnerable people advised to shield will be allowed outdoors.Large retailers including car showrooms and shops in retail parks can also reopen, and outdoor weddings with 10 people present will be allowed.The R-number, or reproduction number, is the average number of people that one coronavirus-infected person will pass the virus on to.
Last week, the executive said the R-number in Northern Ireland was sitting at 0.9, and that it would only allow more restrictions to be eased if it was still below one when it met on Thursday.
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The Department of Health said it estimated that the R-number in Northern Ireland is currently between 0.7 and 0.9, enabling ministers to move ahead with lifting restrictions.It will now publish the R-number every Thursday.One more Covid-19 related death in Northern Ireland was recorded by the department on Thursday, bringing its death toll to 535.The number of fatalities from the virus will ultimately be higher when all deaths in the community are recorded.Government statistics agency Nisra recorded 716 Covid-linked deaths in Northern Ireland by 22 May.
Shielders and phone shops
The executive's five-step Pathway to Recovery does not include a timetable for each of the phases, but agreement on allowing these moves to begin means Northern Ireland will have implemented some of step two in the blueprint.Measures that the executive will allow from 8 June include:
Small weddings and civil partnership ceremonies permitted outdoors, with no more than 10 people present;
Outdoor sports courts, horse trainers and dog groomers can reopen;
Hotels will be able to take advance bookings, ahead of a planned reopening in July;
Large non-food retailers can reopen, including car showrooms, electrical shops and phone shops;
About 80,000 people advised to shield can go outdoors with their household; or if they live alone they can meet one person from another household.
Ministers have stressed that people and businesses must still adhere to physical distancing rules, by staying 2m (6ft) apart.Northern Ireland's recovery from lockdown will not be "calendar led", and it is likely aspects of different steps of the Pathway to Recovery could take effect at the same time, the executive has said.
In other developments on Thursday:
The Republic of Ireland is expected move to the next phase of its Covid-19 relaxation measures on Monday, the taoiseach (Irish PM) has said;
The commissioner for older people in Northern Ireland has expressed concern about the lack of social contact in care homes;
The number of people attending emergency departments in NI dropped by almost a third in the first few weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic;
People who take part in street protests are putting themselves and others "at risk" from Covid-19, the Public Health Agency has warned.
On Monday, First Minister Arlene Foster criticised reports of complacency and a "flagrant disregard" for the lockdown restrictions."You prolong the journey out of lockdown if you break rules and create conditions where Covid-19 can thrive," she warned.
Muting media microphones
Meanwhile, SDLP assembly member Colin McGrath has written to the first and deputy first ministers urging them to allow "enhanced press scrutiny" during daily press conferences given by the executive.
Stormont ministers have been giving daily press briefings since the onset of the lockdown in March
Ministers should be committing to maximum transparency and briefings could be conducted differently, he added."I have noted on a number of occasions that local journalists have been prevented from asking supplementary questions as a matter of routine and that media microphones have been muted in the course of ministers delivering responses," said Mr McGrath."In the interests of full disclosure, that should not be happening."He said allowing journalists to ask a follow-up question could place an additional time burden on ministers, but argued it would provide clarity to the public about the lifting of more lockdown measures.
Why does the R-number matter?
As R refers to the average number of people that someone with Covid-19 is expected to infect, the goal is to keep R below one to prevent the spread of the virus.Prof Ian Young, the chief scientific adviser, said there are a number of other factors guiding officials.For example, the number of daily new cases needs to be low in order for contact tracing, testing and isolating to work properly, he said.The number of hospital admissions and critical care patients is being closely monitored as well, to ensure the R-number is kept low.
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