Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us today.
I am here at the podium with the Minister for Health & Social Care. On Zoom we are joined by the Minister for Education, Sport and Culture and of course our Director of Public Health.
We are now a week on from announcing a loosening of some of our COVID restrictions, which allowed gatherings outdoors in groups of no more than 10 – socially distanced and wherever possible with face coverings.
I know this has made a real difference for many of you after a tough few weeks of lockdown, allowing loved ones and friends to meet up and see each other in person, albeit at a safe distance.
And the start of the week also saw a relaxing of the rules around outdoor construction and indoor construction on vacant properties, as well as garden centres being able to reopen – all with appropriate safeguards in place.
Since the announcement last week, we have seen three new cases of COVID-19. But I am happy to report that all three were close contacts of known cases. And most importantly these new cases were people who were already self-isolating.
With only three new cases, the number of active cases of COVID-19 has dropped rapidly, and yesterday we reached the welcome milestone of our active case count dropping below one hundred.
I’ll hand over to the Minister for Health & Social Care for a little more on the latest numbers.
Dr Ewart, would you like to comment on what these numbers mean for us and the outlook?
Things are certainly moving in the right direction. But we must continue to take this one step at a time.
Coming out of our circuit break lockdown in a managed fashion with a gradual return to normality remains our aim.
Doing it this way means we can test the water as we go and keep the outbreak under control should there be anything bubbling under the surface.
It is important we take the right actions at the right time to avoid us having to pause this process or, worse, back-track. A backward step is the last thing any of us wants.
The Council of Ministers met today to discuss what the next steps might be in easing lockdown restrictions.
As we covered last week, we have been looking at a phased approach of reopening education settings as well as pre-schools, nurseries and childminders. At first this will be for specific groups of children before a wider reopening.
I’ll hand over to the Minister for Education, Sport and Culture to talk through what the Council of Ministers has agreed.
Again, the key here is a managed transition back to normality. I very much hope this time next week we will be able to confirm that we are going ahead with plans for all children to return to school on Monday 19 April.
This morning the Council of Ministers also discussed what other steps we could take to gradually ease lockdown restrictions. Let me take you through what else we agreed:
From Monday 12 April we will remove restrictions around tradespeople entering occupied properties. This means indoor construction work on houses – for example painting and decorating, the installation of bathrooms and kitchens – can all recommence.
For now, mitigations must be in place in the form of social distancing and face coverings. Ideally, householders should be out of the house when tradespeople are in their home or – at the very least – they should not be in the same room.
Also from Monday – and in line with what I have just mentioned – estate agents and surveyors can also enter people’s homes, again with the mitigations I have just set out. In addition to this, restrictions around viewings for vacant unoccupied properties will also be removed from Monday. We are not quite ready to allow viewings of occupied properties. But we are inching closer.
This is about those all-important baby steps. We are ready to loosen some restrictions but it is important we walk before we run.
We want to step out of your lives completely. And I hope this will happen soon. But for the moment we need to keep measures in place that prevent the most risk of the virus rapidly spreading through our community.
For the moment, we are not ready to allow free mixing between households – apart from support bubbles that are in place.
Non-essential retail is another area we discussed this morning. Again, the view here was that now is not the time to remove restrictions in this area. The Council of Ministers did agree however that from this Monday hardware stores can reopen – with social distancing in place and face coverings strongly recommended. Some retailers may of course insist on face coverings and this is a matter for them. Pet groomers will also be able to accept animals on a drop-off and collection basis from Monday.
Turning to outdoor leisure venues, I know there has been a little bit of confusion on this over the past week. From this Monday, all outdoor leisure venues can reopen. But what must be clear here is that the rules on outdoor gatherings still apply. No more than 10 people can gather together and there must be social distancing in place, preferably with face coverings.
Whilst outdoor sports venues can reopen, there should be no sharing of sports equipment between different households, such as golf balls for example.
Sports that involve players from other households coming close together or into contact with each other cannot yet restart. For example, rugby and football.
As part of this loosening of restrictions, children’s play areas can all reopen from Monday. I know it is difficult but please make every effort to keep children from different households separated when in play areas. We still need to be cautious as we exit this lockdown. Please act responsibly and do what is right for you, your family and our community.
So, what might our next steps be after this? We hope that along with the return of all children to schools on Monday 19 April, we may be able to remove most or even all remaining restrictions on what premises can and cannot open. This could mean the reopening of non-essential retail, lifestyle businesses, gyms and hospitality. A return to near-normal.
But we will have to see what happens in the coming week before we can be certain on this. And it’s important to be prepared for some restrictions around social distancing to potentially remain in place as well as the recommendation on face coverings.
I have said before that we want this lockdown to be our last as we plough on with our vaccination programme and protect our community – particularly our most vulnerable – from COVID.
On that front, I am pleased that we have seen another week of fantastic progress with our vaccination programme. I want to extend my sincere thanks to everyone involved, especially those who worked through the Easter weekend.
Almost sixty percent of our adult population have now received at least one vaccine dose. And we’re over the 90% mark for everyone in the first phase of our vaccination programme – that’s those most vulnerable to COVID-19. We’re now rapidly approaching 60,000 doses in arms – and this includes almost 45,000 first doses.
There has been a great deal of discussion about the AstraZeneca vaccine over the past 24 hours, so I will hand over to the Minister for Health & Social Care who I know wants to cover this.
We are making steady progress and that achievement is down to everyone in our community. I know lockdowns are tough in different ways for different people. But we must stay the course. Our vaccination programme is making tremendous progress and is our route out of lockdowns.
Please continue to do the right thing. The end of this circuit break is in sight.
And please do remain vigilant. If you have any COVID-like symptoms, please don’t ignore them. Self-isolate right away and contact 111 for advice and to arrange a test.
That’s all for today. Thank you.