Lockdown restrictions currently in place in Northern Ireland to try to curb the spread of coronavirus will be extended until 1 April, the NI Executive has agreed.
Ministers met on Thursday to debate the way forward and whether or not an extension was required or if easements could start to be made.
The restrictions had been due to lapse on 5 March.
Infection rates and numbers admitted to hospital with Covid-19 have fallen during lockdown, but health officials have urged caution – particularly given concerns over new variants of the virus.
Ministers have, however, agreed that preschool children and primary classes up to P3 will return to school on 8 March, while remote learning will continue for others.
Only vulnerable children and those whose parents or guardians are key workers have been in classrooms since January.
Secondary school pupils in key exam years - year groups 12 to 14 - will return to face-to-face teaching on 22 March.
But it is understood those P1-P3 pupils will return to remote learning again for a week on 22 March, the week prior to the Easter holidays, to minimise the impact on infection rates of years 12-14 returning to classes on the same date.
No decisions have been taken yet on whether other year groups will return to class after the Easter holidays.
The clear feedback from schools, unions, parents and pupils has been that once a decision is taken to return to school, there should be no further periods of wholesale remote learning. However, I recognise that it may be necessary in limited cases.
The restrictions have meant only leaving home for essential purposes, such as work that cannot be facilitated remotely or exercise, since Christmas.
Non-essential retail and close contact services have been and will remain closed, as will leisure and hospitality with the exception of some takeaway services.
Some relaxations have been agreed though which will allow “click and collect” shopping from some outlets previously categorised as non-essential.
That means, from 8 March, click and collect will be possible to buy baby equipment, clothing and footwear, and electrical goods.
Many of our members will be devastated to hear that the current lockdown, which began on Boxing Day, has been extended until Easter. The impact of this crisis and repeated lockdowns on many aspects of our society will be severe and long-standing and no more so than the effect on jobs and the economy.
From 8 March, easements will also allow up to 10 people from two households to meet up outside.
The decision to extend the main lockdown restrictions to 1 April will be subject to a review on 18 March.
Speaking at a press briefing in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, First Minister Arlene Foster described the Executive’s approach to the restrictions as “pragmatic and sensible”.
Expressing a desire to move forward slowly in order to ensure no backward steps, she added: “It is clear that we must proceed with great care and with caution.
“We need our decisions to be both safe and sustainable.
“And I’m determined that, through the proper sequencing of actions as we emerge from these restrictions, that we leave lockdown in the rear view and that we do not step backwards again.”
Mrs Foster also said a “decision-making framework” for the Executive’s exit from lockdown strategy would be published on 1 March.
I would advise people not to be looking at 1 April as the date that everything will be opening up again.
Finance Minister Conor Murphy, again standing in for party colleague and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, expressed concern about assumptions that may be made around the new end date.
The restrictions will now potentially lapse on 1 April which is Holy Thursday, but Mr Murphy urged people not to make plans for Easter holidays.
“The advice would not be to book anything for Easter weekend,” he said.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride has already said he envisages a summer similar to last year, when many restrictions were eased.
He feels some additional restrictions are likely to be needed again to move through autumn and winter, but that as more people at risk of serious illness are vaccinated, pressures on the health service will ease.
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