Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister has cautioned the public not to expect a rapid exit from lockdown, insisting the route back to normality will be slow and steady.
Michelle O’Neill’s remarks came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a four-stage plan to lift Covid-19 restrictions in England.
Ms O’Neill and Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster are due to outline Northern Ireland’s plan for exiting lockdown in the Assembly next week.
Answering Assembly questions on Monday, the Sinn Fein vice president acknowledged that people were looking for some hope around what the future held.
“We very much want to give the public the route map and how we’re going to reverse out of the current restrictive measures which we have in place,” she said.
“So I think that everybody’s looking for some hope and they’re looking towards the future.
“We want to spell that out for people and it needs to be a step-by-step process but there’s no doubt in my mind that it needs to be a gradual.
“It’s going be slow and steady in terms of lifting of restrictions.
“But with the rollout of the vaccine in place now and the fact that it’s working so well, and we commend all those that are involved in delivering the vaccine, that combined with keeping the virus suppressed for as long as possible, then we need to chart out for people what the future looks like and we hope to do that next week.”
Ministers have already agreed to extend Northern Ireland’s current strict lockdown to April 1, albeit with a review on March 18.
Some primary school pupils will return to class on March 8, with some older post-primary school children on March 22, but there has been no date given for the full return of the wider school population.
In England, all schools are going back on March 8.
Under the Prime Minister’s four-step plan, all limits on social contact could be lifted by June 21.
Retail NI, which represents small retailers in Northern Ireland, said Mr Johnson’s plan was “realistic and welcome”.
Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said: “We look forward to the publication of the Executive’s road map because it is vital, they give less tunnel, more light and above all else hope to our community.
“Covid marshals, public hand sanitisers and business compliance scoring with the regulations all need to be in place for the reopening of non-essential retail to reassure shoppers and to limit transmission.
“This work needs to start now.
“This will require considerable effort from the Executive, local councils and businesses working in partnership to produce a reopening plan for our high streets.”
Another four deaths linked to Covid-19 were confirmed by Stormont’s Department of Health on Monday.
Another 187 cases of the virus were also notified.
There were 386 Covid positive patients in hospital on Monday morning, 51 of whom were in intensive care.