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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.”