Ladies and gentlemen, as you will know, Deirdre Hargey announced yesterday that she has temporarily stood down as Communities Minister and she was replaced today by Caral ni Chuilin.
I would like to extend my best wishes to Deirdre as she undergoes surgery and would like to thank Caral for taking over the reins at Communities until Deirdre is ready to resume her duties.
Caral takes on the role at a time when Northern Ireland has taken some significant steps forward in emerging from the Coronavirus lockdown.
But as we take those steps, it is vital that we remember that Covid-19 has not been beaten and will not be beaten for some time.
As a society, all of us must not lift our guard. The virus remains a serious threat to many of our citizens and, in the absence of a vaccine, we owe it to ourselves, our families and neighbours to make sure all precautions are being taken to avoid the spread of this disease.
That means self isolating if you are exhibiting the symptoms of a sore throat, a high temperature or the loss of your sense of smell or taste.
It means if you are not exhibiting those symptoms, strictly following the government advice on hand hygiene, on keeping surfaces clean, on limiting your activities in public and observing social distancing.
In this climate of caution and vigilance, Executive decisions must also be proportionate and guided by the scientific and medical advice, with the prevalence of the virus kept under constant and careful review.
Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock has indicated that up to 80% of people who tested positive for Coronavirus in the UK don’t have symptoms, based on an ONS sample.
Health Minister Robin Swann also confirmed to the Executive this afternoon that Northern Ireland continues to have the lowest Covid-19 death rate in the UK, with the latest figures from NISRA reporting 186 deaths per 100,000 population compared with 364/100,000 for England for example.
While our health service has weathered the initial storm and we are in a much better place today, we should never forget that less than 10 weeks ago in early April, we had 345 inpatients with Covid-19 - 57 in intensive care unit beds.
Some countries have seen spikes in Covid cases since emerging from lockdown, so we cannot afford to be complacent.
Our travel data for up to Thursday shows we had the largest traffic volumes since lockdown commenced. Thursday’s flows were up 11.8% on seven days previously - although that is still 29% down on normal Thursday flows during similar periods in 2018 and 2019.
Those people using our roads need to be mindful of their responsibility not just to drive safely but to socialise safely in accordance with the public health advice.
It is because people have followed that advice in recent weeks that the rate of infection, the R rate, has dropped to between 0.5 and 0.9 and that, in turn, has enabled Northern Ireland to be the first part of the UK to allow the widespread reopening of retail.
I am also pleased to announce that, in light of the progress made, the Executive has today taken the decision to bring forward the date for the re-opening of tourist accommodation.
The reopening of caravan parks, camping sites and self-catering tourist accommodation will now be brought forward to 26th June, with hotels and other tourist accommodation permitted to open from 3rd July.
While the spread of Covid-19 is being contained, it must be stressed that re-opening will be conditional on this continuing to be the case.
The Executive has also agreed today to the provisional reopening of restaurants and cafes on 3rd July.
Pubs and bars with outdoor spaces will also be permitted to sell alcohol outdoors by table service. And indoor pubs and bars will be able to serve meals with alcohol, complementary to the food.
Hotel restaurants will also be permitted to re-open and hotel bars will be restricted to serving meals with alcohol ancillary to this.
As with pubs and bars, hotels with outdoor spaces will be permitted to sell alcohol in these spaces.
We can also confirm today that visitor attractions such as museums, historic houses, culture and heritage venues, may also open from 3rd July.
But while the opening of tourism and hospitality is a significant milestone on the roadmap to recovery, I know that many of you will regard the ability to visit the homes of family and friends indoors is another.
Last week, the Executive introduced the bubble concept to Northern Ireland, allowing someone from a single person household to visit, stay over and spend time with one other household of their choosing.
The Executive has agreed today to adopt a graduated approach to extending the bubble concept.
The next step will be to bring two full households together and we hope to announce a date for this over the next couple of weeks.
The Executive is, of course, mindful that not everyone can at this stage form bubbles and that people who have been advised to shield including single people with underlying health conditions are excluded. We will let you know when it is safe to do so and continue to support you and urge everyone in your family and social circle to keep checking in on you while respecting the public health advice.
As more activities open up, the Executive also recognises that childcare is essential to many people returning to work.
The Executive has already agreed to extend the definition of keyworker for childcare to include the retail sector, and there will also be a gradual increase in the number of families childminders are permitted to provide childcare for, over coming months.
We have progressed the opening of churches and community centres too, for daycare and school-age childcare.
Today the Executive has agreed that childcare should also be made available to those working in the manufacturing and construction sectors, who had not previously been covered by the definition of keyworker.
Officials from Health and Education are continuing to work alongside a sector reference group in the development of a Recovery Strategy for Childcare.
This will be based on parental need and include assessing where there are capacity gaps. A further paper will be prepared for our next Executive meeting on Thursday.
Finally, I am pleased that the working group on the gradual reopening of places of worship has been established. Representatives are being contacted today and the group will have its first meeting this Wednesday at midday.
All these strides forward have been made possible by all of you implementing the public health advice and taking responsibility to stop the spread of this insidious disease.
We have come so far on the Executive’s roadmap to recovery but the journey is far from over.
We all have a role to play in ensuring we can reach our destination safely. Stay safe. Save lives. Work safe. Save lives.