Executive agrees to relax restrictions on close contact services and outdoor gatherings

Stormont ministers have agreed to relax a number of Covid restrictions.

The Executive has agreed to lift a number of Coronavirus restrictions relating to close contact services and outdoor gatherings.

Appointments will no longer be required for close contact services, with the ban on "overlapping" appointments being removed.

15 people from an unlimited number of households will also be able to meet in outdoor domestic settings.

Ministers are expected to meet again on Monday and Thursday next week to consider whether to press ahead with other relaxations that had originally been earmarked for next week.

At Monday's meeting, ministers will decide on whether to remove restrictions on audiences in seated theatres and concert halls.

Live music could be permitted for rehearsals and performances in these venues with no volume restrictions.

Rules surrounding MOT testing could be eased.

Face coverings may only have to be worn in places of worship when entering and leaving the building.

In terms of education, school "bubbles" could be removed from guidance, along with the requirement to wear face coverings in the classroom.

Extracurricular, support activities and youth services could also be allowed again.

Ten people from no more that three households could also be allowed again.

If ministers agree to those measures it is understood they would come into effect immediately on Monday.

On Thursday next week, ministers will consider measures considered to be a higher risk.

Those include lifting restrictions on indoor live music, including a proposal to end a requirement for the sound to be kept to an ambient level.

Conferences and exhibitions could also be set to return.

On Thursday, ministers will also examine a proposal to end social-distancing requirements for outdoor activities and reduce the distance to one metre for indoor settings.

Next week's meetings come amidst a recent rise in the number of Coronavirus cases with over 9,000 cases recorded in the past week by the Department of Health.

At this week's scheduled Executive meeting, ministers were alerted to the importance of improving Northern Ireland's vaccination rates.

They were told a 5% increase in uptake of the first dose from 85% to 90% would result in a 50% decrease in cases and hospital admissions at the peak of the current wave of infections.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said the decisions represented "modest" progress.

"I'm pleased to say that we've been able to make some progress, some modest changes have been made on two key areas," she told reporters in Coalisland, Co Tyrone.

"We're going to come back on Monday for more decisions to be made and again on Thursday, so we're going to continue to make steady progress but I think it's important to say that we're making these decisions in the context of an increase, a rapid increase in the number of cases but also, alongside that, in the last eight days we've seen the doubling of the number of people in hospitals.

"So a cautious approach I think is what's required here, a steady approach, continuing to make progress bit by bit. And hopefully the public will take some comfort around what we've seen today."

Michelle O'Neill insisted the vaccine remained Northern Ireland's "best defence" and urged more people to come forward for their jabs.

She said Stormont's health advisers would have more data around the link between positive cases and hospital admissions next week.

"That's what's crucially important here," she added.

"So when they have that information we'll be in a better place to take the decisions around what we can ease.

"So I would like to think that by Monday we'll be able to potentially make a fresh set of decisions and then Thursday we'd be able to follow that up as well."