Friday, March 24, 2023

COVID-19: Lockdown Exit Plan To Be Discussed by Executive

The latest version of the so-called “pathway to recovery” will be presented to the Stormont executive after officials worked on it at the weekend.

Ministers’ views have been taken into account for the new draft.

But there is concern it could be overshadowed by a row among ministers about post-Brexit border control posts.

On Friday night Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons ordered officials to stop work on new posts, which are based at ports and are used to check food products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The decision came amid unionist opposition to the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, which have effectively created a trade border in the Irish Sea.

Mr Lyons, a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) politician, said he was responding to “practical difficulties” but the move sparked a sharp reaction, with Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party all demanding emergency talks.

They have sought legal advice about whether Mr Lyons had the power to act as he did and the issue will be discussed during Monday’s executive meeting.

Recovery plan coming ‘this week’

It is believed the lockdown exit plan includes nine “pathways” to take account of various parts of the Northern Ireland economy.

The first and deputy first ministers had previously said the plan would be published on Monday.

Posting on twitter on Sunday night, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it would be published “this week.”

The plan is not expected to include indicative dates but will set out criteria that must be met before restrictions on different sectors can be eased.

Last week First Minister Arlene Foster said the executive would also take into consideration “not only local data but emerging evidence from other jurisdictions too”.

Northern Ireland’s lockdown has been extended until 1 April, with a review due on 18 March.

Whether or not the lockdown exit plan will be published on Monday seems to depend on which political source you speak to.

If not Monday, then it is likely to be Tuesday.

But the so-called “roadmap” hit an unexpected bump on Friday night.

Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons’ order to halt work on the border control posts has been contested by other Stormont parties and they want an urgent discussion about it.

It is another disagreement at a time when the executive needs to be as united as possible.

In England and Scotland, lockdown exit plans that include target dates for easing restrictions have been published but the respective governments have said the lifting of the rules will only happen if certain conditions are met.

In the Republic of Ireland, lockdown restrictions have been extended until 5 April.

However some pupils in schools in the Republic of Ireland will return to classrooms on Monday.

Those returning include students sitting the Leaving Cert – qualifications similar to A-levels taken in Northern Ireland – and some younger primary school pupils.

In Northern Ireland children in pre-schools and pupils in primaries one to three will be the first return to class next Monday.

They will be followed by pupils in years 12 to14 on 22 March.

Pupils in other years do not yet know when they will return to school.