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Good afternoon.

We have had detailed discussions in the Executive today on a number of matters, including the timing of a return to classroom learning, and the further roll-out of our vaccination programme.

But before I talk about these in further detail, I want to set out the current Covid-19 context which is informing our decision-making.

I’m glad to say that our collective efforts to drive infection rates down across our community are continuing to work.

The R rate for new cases is now well below 1 – in fact it is sitting between 0.65 and 0.8. Case positivity has fallen to 12% from 17% last week, emphasising the reduction in community transmission.

I want to say thank you again to all of those who are making daily, albeit difficult, decisions to do the right thing to protect themselves, to protect their loved ones and protect all of our key workers.

Every day our medical teams, health care staff, workers in essential retail, postal and delivery staff and teachers supporting vulnerable children leave their homes to go to work in the service of others.

They are acting selflessly.

So are all of the tens of thousands of people across Northern Ireland, who make the jobs of our key workers safer, by staying at home.

Our hospitals are continuing to face incredible pressures as they deal with the current high levels of in-patients. There are twice as many people hospitalised with COVID in this wave than in the first COVID wave.

Of real concern are the number of patients currently needing specialist intensive care support. The number of Covid-19 patients in ICU has doubled over the last month, reaching its highest-ever level this week.

There is a lag of a number of weeks between a drop in infection rates and a reduction in the number of patients who are severely ill and hospitalised.

So, we must continue to push down on the curve of infection.

Today, the Executive has decided that schools will not be able to fully open again before the 8th of March.

This will apply to all educational settings including pre-schools, nurseries, primaries and post primaries. Special Schools will remain open and mainstream schools will continue to provide supervised learning for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Childcare settings and childminders will also remain open.

We have kept you fully informed on the course of the pandemic, so I know this is unlikely to come as a significant surprise. And it is in line with decisions elsewhere.

But I also understand that for so many, it will still be felt as a disappointment that we cannot yet press the restart button on this and other aspects of daily life.

As a working Mum with children still in full-time education, I have a sense how difficult home-schooling can be, practically, educationally and emotionally.

The kitchen table is no substitute for the school desk.

And, as my children would no doubt agree, parents are no substitute for a trained teacher or lecturer.

I am resolved, as is the Executive, to getting our young people back into the classroom as soon as possible.

Because this is the best place for them to learn, to achieve their full potential and to have the best life chances.

Today I want to send a message to all young people, to say that we understand how hard this is for you. You are coping with much change and uncertainty.

We recognise the new challenges you are experiencing, and we are determined to do all we can to support you.

We know you have not had the benefit of in-class teaching for the equivalent of half of a school year, since the start of Covid-19.

For those who are at exam transition points, this has been a particularly difficult time.

Today the Executive also supported a further roll-out of the Engage programme which is aimed at enabling student catch-up. This will be resourced by Covid funding. The Education Minister will be bringing a further paper on this to the Executive in coming weeks.

You can have confidence that things will get better.

We will get there more quickly by pulling together.

Our vaccination programme is an important part of our pathway out of this pandemic.

We remain on track to meet our targets.

Another eight thousand people were vaccinated yesterday. Today we will reach over 200,000 people here having had at least one dose.

83% of our care homes (more than 400 homes) have been visited twice.

The GP-led delivery to the over 75s, and soon the over 70s, continues.

From today, the programme for over 65s has gone live at seven local centres. I would encourage all of those who are between the age of 65 and 69 to sign up online or by phone, for your slot.

Working together is the best way for us all to get through this.

Be respectful of others. Be kind, and do the right thing.

Stay safe.