I want to begin today by reflecting on the heartening and hard-won progress we are making together against Covid-19.
This week we have passed some significant milestones.
More than 600,000 people have been vaccinated.
And with the largest delivery so far of Oxford Astra Zeneca vaccine this week, our programme is really accelerating.
We are now looking forward to time in the very near future where half of all adults will have the protection of a vaccine.
Thankfully we are continuing to see a drop in the weekly average of new cases and the R rate is consistently staying below 1, at 0.75-0.95.
The number of Covid positive inpatients today has dropped below 200, with 26 in ICU.
The expanded rapid testing service in workplaces across the private and public sectors is now live.
It puts us in a much stronger position to identify asymptomatic cases.
For our businesses and service providers it will help them build in higher levels of resilience which will be vital as we move into the recovery stage of this pandemic.
I would urge all those in private sector organisations to get involved by registering their interest with the Department of Health.
As I have said on many occasions before, as well as a health crisis, COVID has delivered significant damage to our society and economy.
Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, recently published her Economic Recovery Action Plan as the blueprint for how we rebuild our local economy.
A wide range of business organisations and stakeholders warmly welcomed the document; and today the Finance Minister has confirmed this Plan can be fully funded, allowing further work to proceed on expanding our already highly-skilled workforce, stimulating research and development, building a greener economy and promoting investment, trade and exports as the drivers to recovery.
The Executive has also agreed to allocate a £230 million rates relief support package to target sectors which will be most affected by the COVID-19 crisis in the months ahead.
This will permit 100% rates relief for businesses based on a similar model as 2020/21 for Retail, Hospitality; Leisure/ Entertainment/ Tourism; Airports; Manufacturing, Newspaper Production and Childcare.
This builds on the previous rates support package and means that many businesses here will receive 100% rates relief for a further 12 months.
The Executive is extremely mindful of the difficult times being faced by local businesses.
Our local travel agency businesses have been hit hard by this pandemic, so next week we plan to open a limited, time-bound scheme which will provide flat-rate payments of £3,500 and £10,000 to eligible businesses.
Also at the Executive today we had a useful and productive discussion on the full-time return of school children to classrooms.
As you know this is our top priority as we step on the pathway out of restrictions.
I’m sure we all felt uplifted by the happy scenes of our returning Year 1-3 pupils this week.
I have heard from so many parents of the tears of joy – both from the children and the parents - as they re-joined classmates and restarted their little lives again back at school.
Today we have decided these year groups should keep attending school, along with pre-school children, right up to the Easter break.
And next Tuesday at the 4-weekly review, we will provide further details on the full return to school for all of our pupils.
More immediately, this Sunday marks our second Mother’s Day in this pandemic where many of us will be relying on cards, phone calls and online messages to carry our love and appreciation.
Some of you will be in a household bubble or perhaps be a care home partner and so will be able to have face-to-face contact.
But I would ask everyone, whatever your situation, to take as much care as possible and follow the health guidelines to the letter.
Next week is St Patrick’s Day and we want people to enjoy the festival with your own household, in your own home. Departments continue to collaborate around the situation in the University area.
Please be responsible. And please don’t break the law.
The formal review of restrictions will take place next Tuesday, and the deputy First Minister and I will have more to share at that stage.