Northern Ireland lockdown: what are the rules and when they will end?

Northern Ireland’s lockdown exit strategy offers a “careful, cautious and hopeful” plan for charting a journey out of restrictions, Michelle O’Neill has said.

Outlining the Pathway to Recovery plan to the Stormont Assembly on Mar 2, the deputy First Minister said the region would turn a corner in the battle against Covid-19 in 2021, but she stressed “we are not out of the woods”.

Executive ministers signed off on the strategy earlier on Mar 2. It focuses on nine key areas – retail, hospitality, education and young people, work, culture, heritage and entertainment, sports and leisure, travel and tourism, worship and ceremonies, home and community.

“This is a day very much of hope,” said Ms O’Neill.

Each will emerge from lockdown in stages. The stages are lockdown, cautious first steps, gradual easing, further easing, and preparing for the future.

However, the deputy first minister made it clear that the blueprint will be led by data, and therefore the plan does not include target dates. She added: “This leaves time for decisions to be properly informed by the health, community and economic data, and to see the real-time impact of the prevalence of the virus.

“That time will be used carefully to look at the results of the regular modelling and assess if it is safe to take the next step.”

Ms O’Neill also said the Executive was committed to getting education back as quickly as possible for the sake of children and young people, for their education, wellbeing and future aspirations.

The Executive will review the progress of the pathway every four weeks.

Arlene Foster announced on Feb 18 that lockdown in Northern Ireland will continue until Apr 1 at the earliest, prompted by concerns of a potential rise in cases following St Patrick’s Day (Mar 17). 

However, it was announced that preschool and primary school children up to P3 will return to classes on Mar 8, while remote learning will continue for older pupils. 

Secondary school pupils in key exam years will be the next to return, with students in years 12-14 commencing face-to-face classes on Mar 22.

Pupils in P3 and below will then resume remote learning from Mar 22 to minimise chances of infection for students in key exam years. 

Remote learning will continue for all other pupils until further details of the phased return are announced.

The ‘Stay at Home’ order became legally enforceable from Jan 8. People can only leave home with a “reasonable excuse” such as for medical or food shopping, exercise and work that cannot be done from home.

All close contact services and non-essential retail are not permitted to open their doors until Mar 5 according to current restrictions, although some click and collect services can resume from Mar 8. All visitor attractions, gyms, and swimming pools will also remain closed.

Ministers did not make travel outside of the country illegal, but instead issued guidance advising against non-essential travel between Northern Ireland and both Great Britain and the Irish Republic.

Arlene Foster (right) and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill during a media briefing at The Hill of O'Neill centre in Dungannon, County Tyrone, announcing the extension of lockdown in Northern Ireland 

Credit: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA Wire

Northern Ireland’s Health Minister has said the region is on a “clear path to better times”.

Addressing his weekly media conference on March 3, Robin Swann said data on the prevalence of the virus and vaccine rollout figures were “positive”.

“Our approach – which is firmly based on the principle of based on cautious optimism – is producing dividends,” he said.

Mr Swann said 582,881 vaccines had been administered in the region, 545,000 of which were first doses, as of March 3.

“We expect the programme to be even busier in the coming weeks, with supplies of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine scheduled to increase very significantly,” he said.

A man wearing a protective face mask walks past a mural supporting staff of the National Health Service (NHS) 

A man walks past a mural supporting staff of the National Health Service amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in Belfast


What are the rules? 

As of  Jan 8, the rules are:

  • Essential retail and hospitality services can now trade beyond the previous curfew hours of 8 pm. Delivery takeaway services are allowed until 11 pm. 
  • Hospitality venues such as cafes, restaurants, pubs, bars and social clubs must remain closed, with the exception of providing food and drink for takeaway, drive-through or delivery.
  • Close contact services such as hairdressers and beauty salons must close
  • Gyms must close, with personal exercise only permitted outside 
  • Churches can resume services, with weddings and funerals have a cap of 25 people
  • Households are not allowed to mix indoors except for certain exceptions, including support bubbles, childcare and maintenance work
  • Two households can gather in public spaces outdoors in groups of six, including children
  • Indoor sports are banned except for professional athletes 
  • Leisure and entertainment venues such as theatres, concert halls, cinemas, amusement arcades, bingo halls, bowling alleys and skating rinks must close
  • Overnight stays are banned unless it is with a member of your bubble
  • Higher education institutions, such as universities must deliver distanced learning 
  • People should work from home unless unable to do so 

How are the restrictions enforced?

The police are able to take action against those who break these rules, including asking people to disperse and issuing £100 fixed penalty notices. For repeat offenders, these fines can increase up to £3,200.

People aged 18 or over can be fined:

£200 for the first offence, lowered to £100 if paid within 14 days, £400 for the second offence, then doubling for each further offence up to a maximum of £6,400.

A new £800 fine has been implemented from Jan 25 for anybody who attends a gathering of more than 15 people. This fine, announced on Jan 21, will be doubled for each repeat offence.

Can I travel to Northern Ireland?

A new lockdown began in England on Jan 5, meaning travelling outside of the country is not allowed until at least mid-February.

The executive have also issued new guidance against all but essential travel between Northern Ireland, the UK and the Irish Republic.

People arriving in Northern Ireland should self-isolate for 10 days.

Hotels and other accommodation providers can operate on a restricted basis for those already resident, for work related purposes, for vulnerable people, those in emergency situations and people unable to return home.

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