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Today in the Executive we have carried out our seventh review of the health restrictions.

We have had detailed and careful discussions, based on the medical and scientific evidence, on the necessity and proportionality of the measures.

We are conscious of the impact of the regulations on everyday life for everyone. They place a heavy burden on us all.

Over the last number of weeks, through our collective efforts, we have achieved significant results in our pushback against Covid-19.

We have been able to push the R rate even lower for cases, it now sits around 0.7-0.80; and for hospital admissions, which are now around 0.45- 0.65.

The number of people needing ICU care has reduced, and thankfully we are also seeing a significant fall in deaths.

And we have to remember that this is not about abstract figures – this is about saving lives – yours, and your loved ones.

I say with gratitude to you all, thanks to your efforts, we are now past the peak of this period of infection.

But we know from experience that what looks like success is both hard-won and fragile.

Of greatest concern at the moment is the prevalence of new variants.

The Office for National Statistics suggests that the variant known as B.1.1.7 now makes up 70% of our cases.

It is a fact that this and other variants move with alarming speed when they get the chance to spread.

This means that when contact increases across society, the rate of infection will be much swifter than we have experienced before.

And while the number of cases of Covid-19 are decreasing, the level of ongoing community transmission presents significant concern.

I am sure we have all taken great encouragement from the amazing success of our vaccination roll-out and extending protection now to those who are clinically vulnerable as well as carers this week.

We are steadily working our way up toward the half million mark for vaccinations, and are on the verge of reaching 30% of the adult population in Northern Ireland.

There is a time lag between immunisation and protection. So those being vaccinated must continue doing all they can to protect themselves and others from infection.

The decisions facing the Executive today have not been straightforward. There are many factors which have had to be assessed and balanced.

What is clear is that we must proceed with great care and caution.

We are united as an Executive in our commitment to ensure that our decisions are both safe and sustainable.

We are determined that through the proper sequencing of actions as we emerge from these restrictions, that we do not step backwards into a Lockdown again.

So, our clear priority at this point is to continue to keep the R rate below 1 for cases.

To achieve this, it is considered that a full lifting of the current restrictions is not possible at this point.

The Executive has reluctantly accepted the analysis from our health advisers that the restrictions will need to remain in place for a further four weeks until 1st April, and we will conduct another full review of the regulations by 18th March.

I know this will come as a disappointment, but it is a pragmatic and sensible approach.

It is important to be clear that we will only maintain restrictions for as long as they are proportionate and necessary, and so we will keep them continually under review on an ongoing basis.

There is a right time to do everything and while we are not there yet, we are getting there.

We will be taking small steps, which we monitor and assess, before moving to the next stage. As the Prime Minister has said, we will be informed by data, not dates.

So our first step forward will be the gradual return to schools from Monday March 8.

Pre-school and nursery children will return as well as Years 1-3 of primary school to face to face teaching with effect from 8th March.

Students engaged in completing qualifications (GCSEs, AS and A levels, and other vocational qualifications) principally in years 12-14 will also return to full time face to face teaching with effect from 22nd March.

In order to facilitate the return of these qualification-year students- in line with public health considerations, that two large cohorts are not both back simultaneously before Easter- it will be necessary for pre-school, nursery and Year 1 to 3 children to have remote learning during that week of 22nd March, before the Easter break.

The intention is for other students to return to school as soon as achievable after Easter, with the option of separately phasing returns for the P4-7 pupils and the remaining non qualification years of post-primary. This aim will be dependent

upon the prevailing public health situation, and analysis of the impact of other interventions.

We have been clear that the return to classroom learning for our children and young people is our first priority, as soon as the health assessment allows.

But, of course we must be mindful that this will have an impact on the R rate.

To be clear, the greatest risk is not in schools, but outside.

I would ask all parents and carers to work closely with schools to strictly limit contact with others outside your family household.

At this point we consider that we have the headroom to also reduce the pressures on home life by commencing the reinstatement of click and collect services from Monday 8th March, something the Economy Minister has been advocating for some time.

We understand that some goods, over time, have now become in effect essential items, such as baby equipment, clothing, footwear and electrical items.

The click and collect services will be required to be contactless.

The extension of click and collect more widely to other retail sectors will be considered as part of the next review of restrictions on March 18.

And finally, we are very conscious that one of the greatest challenges for us all through the pandemic is the reduced contact with family and loved ones.

So we have agreed that from Monday March 8 we are increasing the number of people who can meet outdoors. Up to ten people, from no more than two households will be able to meet up in a park or other public space.

This is now a time for patience and persistence. We believe the best way to win this stage of our battle against Covid-19 is to dig in, secure the position we hold and then move forward slowly.

We want to be able to re-open all of society. And we will do so with your help.

Over the next 10-14 days we will publish our decision-making framework for our pathway to recovery.

We have begun the journey. We are on our way. Slower than all of us might ideally wish, but steadily. Let’s keep making progress together.

Stay safe.