Retail and hospitality reopens as Northern Ireland’s Covid lockdown eases

Non-essential retail and outdoor hospitality has reopened in Northern Ireland, amid the latest easing of coronavirus restrictions.

Long queues formed outside popular shops like Primark, which does not trade online, as hundreds of shoppers descended on the high street from early on Friday.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds said it was a “really good day”.

During a visit to Belfast’s Victoria Square shopping centre, she also confirmed that the NI Executive’s delayed high street voucher scheme is to start operating at the end of the summer.

Every adult – 1.4m people - will be eligible for a £100 prepaid card to spend in the local retail sector.

“It’s an investment in local businesses, in local shops here in Northern Ireland,” Mrs Dodds said.

Police help manage queues of shoppers in Belfast city centre. Credit: Presseye

Emerging from lockdown has not been without difficulty though, with confusion over the regulations for hospitality causing a particular concern.

Licensed and unlicensed hospitality premises can now serve customers in outdoors settings in groups of six from no more than two householders.

  • Video report by Sara O'Kane:

However, some venues will not be reopening as planned after being told their outdoor areas do not comply with the rules and are too enclosed, despite having been deemed suitable last summer.

Outdoor premises should not be more than 50% enclosed, according to health guidance.

Mourne Seafood in Belfast was told there were issues with its outside area, but has been able to resolve them. Credit: Presseye

Hospitality Ulster said there was “chaos” over the implementation of the rules, but the Executive insists there has been no change to the definitions of indoor and outdoor areas previously applied.

Local councils are inspecting hospitality premises in their respective areas.

In a statement, Belfast City Council said it had a “statutory obligation to ensure compliance within the coronavirus restrictions, set by the NI Executive”.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the issue was discussed at a meeting of the Executive on Thursday and that they want people to be able to open their doors as planned and that there was “no desire to put any additional obstacles in anyone’s way”.

Read more here: 'Chaos' over regulations for outdoor hospitality venues in NI Other easements now in place include the reopening of gyms and swimming pools for individual activities, and the lifting of curfews on takeaways and off-licences.

Self-contained tourist accommodation, like caravans and rented holiday homes, can also resume operating and the limit on outdoor gatherings in domestic gardens has increased to 15 people from no more than three households.

  • Video report by Gareth Wilkinson:

Last week, Northern Ireland took some steps out of lockdown when close-contact services like hairdressers and beauty salons reopened for the first time since before Christmas.

Haircuts are back on the agenda. Credit: PA

Driving lessons and theory and practical tests also resumed, and outdoor tourist attractions welcomed back visitors.

Competitive sport resumed outdoors, with numbers limited to 100, but with no spectators allowed.

More restrictions are set to be lifted on 24 May, although these are subject to review.

Belfast Zoo has reopened along with other outdoor attractions as Northern Ireland eases out of lockdown. Credit: Pacemaker

If plans go ahead, hospitality will be able to open indoors, people will be allowed to gather in homes, and indoor attractions will reopen, along with other tourist accommodation like hotels and B&Bs.

Wedding receptions and post-burial events could also take place in indoor hospitality venues, after appropriate risk assessments.

As more economic wheels started turning, Health Minister Robin Swann has announced that the vaccination programme is now partly open to the 30-34 age group.

Some limited appointments can be booked by those eligible, mainly at the SSE Arena Belfast mass vaccination centre, but also some at community pharmacies, depending on vaccine availability.

Meanwhile, in the Republic of Ireland, the Taoiseach has announced a detailed plan to come out of lockdown in an address to the nation on Thursday evening.

Micheál Martin said it was now safe to continue moving forward with an easing of coronavirus restrictions as Ireland was in a better place, due to people's hard work and sacrifices.

Read more here: Ireland in a better place and ‘hope is returning’