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Mr Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to update the Assembly today on our decisions taken last week on education and at this morning’s Executive.

Before outlining the detail Mr Speaker, it is important to set our decisions in context.

Covid-19 is still with us in our community. Today, we still have 176 Covid in-patients in our hospitals, 18 people were in ICU with Covid, there were 13 active care home outbreaks being managed, 164 people tested positive with Covid 19, and unfortunately one further death.

These are better numbers than we have seen in recent times since the latest restrictions took effect on 26 December. But these numbers still tell us that caution is important. We have seen how numbers can rise rapidly and we do not want to go back there.

That is why we published our Pathway out of Restrictions on 2 March, and we outlined our rationale in our statement to the Assembly that day.

To summarise our rationale in one phrase – cautious but optimistic. Small steps along the Pathway, with time built in to help us take stock of the impact on the ground. Time to reflect, analyse the data and structure the next steps in the Pathway in that context.

Our colleagues in Department of Health have coined the phrase “social contact capital”. It’s a helpful way of understanding the situation we are in. We have an amount of decision making capital which we can afford to spend. And we need to spend it wisely each time, in the interests of as many people as possible. If we spend the capital on one easement of restrictions, it can’t be spent on other things at the same time.

That’s why it is very important that we work our way through the restrictions in a careful and managed way at each four week review point. That is why we are not setting dates so that we can take our decisions against the prevailing health, economic and societal circumstances.

The Executive is clear on the need to think especially hard about our children and young people. Last week we decided that pre-school, nursery and primary school pupils in P1-P3 would remain in school until the start of the Easter Break, meanwhile students in years 12 to 14 would still return to face to face teaching effective from next Monday and today we have considered further the steps we should take, rightly, to provide more certainty for our children and young people, parents, teachers and the whole education family. So today, having taken into account the prevailing Covid situation, and with care and caution, Primary 4 to Primary 7 should return fully from 22 March and all pupils including Years 8-11 will fully resume on 12 April.

These decisions are aimed primarily at getting our children back to school in the safest way possible, with mitigations and preparation time. That has benefits for us all.

We have been very concerned throughout about the impacts for the education of our young people and we know that the education sector will pull together to help address that.

We have been equally concerned about the well-being impacts. We all know how important it is for children to build and grow their friendship networks, to be able to socialize and grow their own interests and future potential.

So this has been our clear focus today. We think every sector in our society will understand that education has to be our priority at this time. We understand those sectors and individuals also want a bit of certainty and hope.

Having taken the education decisions, the Executive went on to look at the available social contact capital to see if we could do more. Our commitment has always been that we will not leave restrictions in place for a day longer than is needed. We appreciate that we are moving quickly towards the first anniversary of the first lockdown in March last year. The weather is improving and we have been in this current lockdown for around 80 days.

That is a long time and a big ask, and we have been so grateful to everyone who has made a personal contribution to the improvement in the Covid situation.

Our responsibility to you is to look carefully at how we can improve the situation for you in a careful and sustainable way. We want to give you hope and we have discussed today a number of small steps which we hope will be welcome.

We have decided that from 1 April:

  1. 10 people from 2 households can undertake outdoor sporting activities, as defined in the regulations;
  1. Up to 6 people from two households may meet outdoors in a private dwelling; and
  1. Garden centres and plant nurseries will be included in the contactless

‘click and collect’ scheme;

We have also decided that, provided the situation still supports this, the following changes will be introduced on 12 April:

  1. Increasing the numbers who can meet outdoors in a garden from six to 10 (including children) from two households;
  1. Removal of the ‘stay at home’ provision in the legislation; moving to a stay local and work from home message.
  1. Allow contactless ‘click and collect’ for all non-essential retail – subject to the overall health position at that time, and DfE evaluation of the limited 8 March re-opening of non-essential

‘click and collect’;

  1. Allow outdoor sports training to resume by sports clubs affiliated with recognised sports Governing Bodies, in small groups of up to 15 people but with all indoor spaces closed except essential toilet facilities.

These relaxations planned for April 12 will be subject to Executive ratification in the week after the Easter weekend.

The Executive has also agreed to increase the provision for elite sports from March

25 to allow a number of new competitions to begin. This minor adjustment to the current restrictions will allow two World Cup qualifications matches scheduled for March 25 and 31 to take place as well as a friendly match between NI and the USA on March 28. No spectators will be permitted at any sporting event.

It is important that we explain our rationale as we know that some people will be disappointed that their sectors are not on this list.

Our focus in our decisions today has been to take a risk based approach, as we promised in our Pathway. The common ground is that the steps are aimed at individuals and their families, to support well-being and socializing in a limited and careful way.

We have focused on outdoor settings where the risk is relatively lower than indoor settings. And there are things we need you to continue to do please. First and foremost, follow the public health advice including when you are outdoors. Wash your hands, and maintain social distancing. If you are meeting up with other people, plan your journey and plan what you do when you meet up. Avoid car sharing if you can, wear a face covering and ensure good ventilation if you can’t.

To our colleagues in the retail sector we realise that today’s developments are modest and we have a long way to go. We thank you for your forbearance and we recognize that large sections of retail have been on the front line all year. We say thank you as an Executive to everyone who has supplied goods, stocked shelves, served customers and looked after us all over a protracted period of time.

Mr Speaker, we will now proceed to deliver these decisions into regulations and guidance changes. The next formal review period is 15 April and we will be working towards that from today. There is no halt in the work that will go into that. That work starts now, and we will monitor the data closely over the coming weeks.

We also want to say something about key events in coming weeks. Tomorrow, St Patrick’s Day would normally be enjoyed by many. We need this to be different tomorrow. Please continue to stay home. Do not socialize outside your family or your bubble, and we particularly want to say to young people that you need to follow the rules and the advice.

Ahead of us we also have Easter and Passover. Important events in our faiths’ calendars, important moments for our citizens. Myself and the deputy First Minister met with the leaders of the four main Churches yesterday to discuss the hope we need to give our people at Easter. And also some solace. This year has been hard for people of all faiths, and people of none. We have very much welcomed the opportunity to work with all faiths’ leaders across the last 12 months and that will continue.

We need to continue to acknowledge how much people need hope and solace, and we noted in our discussion yesterday the desire of the Churches to work towards a return to in-person services in time for Easter and we acknowledge the risk involved and the mitigations required by the Churches. Some places of worship will find it easier to continue with on-line services of course. We know this will be taken forward carefully and we have been grateful to leaders across all faiths who have worked closely with us on a voluntary basis.

We also discussed with the Church leaders the benefit of prayer and reflection and the comfort that can bring. Whether that is from the perspective of our faiths, or a personal reflection on the year gone by, we think that making some time for this on Easter Sunday will be timely.

It is of course a personal matter for everyone, but we are facing into a difficult first anniversary and we all feel a sense of loss, whether that is loss of loved ones or loss of the things we enjoy in life. So, taking a moment, prayer or reflection, will be a powerful act of support for each other. And a way to look forward too, with hope.

Mr Speaker, we have a long way to go but the steps we as an Executive have agreed are designed to start that process in line with our Pathway commitments and to give that bit of hope that everyone is seeking. Thank you.