At-risk people urged to shield during the coronavirus emergency could be able to go outside again from next week, Stormont’s leaders have announced.
The advice to the 80,000 shielding will change from next Monday if the transmission rate of the virus remains under control when executive ministers review the data on Thursday.
If the R rate – the number of people an infected person infects – remains below one this week, ministers will give the go-ahead for those shielding to go outside with people from their own household, or one person from another household if social distancing is observed.
The R number is currently estimated at around 0.9.
First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill made the announcement on the day a provisional date of July 20 was also set for the reopening of hotels and other forms of accommodation.
Again, the reopening of those hospitality businesses is dependent on the R rate at the time.
The death of one more patient who had tested positive for coronavirus was announced on Monday, taking the death toll recorded by the Department of Health to 524.
Mrs Foster said the changing to shielding advice would be a “reasonable and proportionate first step”.
“Throughout June, we will continue to monitor the progress of the virus and, if the rate of transmission continues on a downward trend, and of course we all hope that it does, then in consultation with our scientific and medical advisers we will consider further relaxations for those who are shielding,” she said.
Ms O’Neill stressed that the safest place for those shielding was still at home.
“It is crucially important that you are very strict about maintaining social distancing,” she said.
She added: “You have come this far so make sure you protect yourselves as best you can until we are out the other side of this.”
A number of other relaxations are also due to come into effect next Monday.
These include the opening of more retail outlets and the go-ahead for small outdoor weddings.
Mrs Foster said the executive would have to make some difficult decisions if the R rate was above one when ministers next convene.
“We very much hope that R is not above one on Thursday because that will present us with some difficulties around some of the things that we’ve been making indicative announcements about,” she said.
The First Minister also issued a blunt message to those flouting lockdown rules over the weekend.
She said scenes like the large gatherings at Ballyholme beach in Co Down on Friday night, which saw one attending police officer being attacked, were not acceptable.
“We have seen over the weekend new evidence of complacency,” she said.
“And indeed in the worst cases there have been flagrant disregard for public safety.”
Earlier, economy minister Diane Dodds announced the tentative opening date for hotels.
The region’s hospital industry has been devastated by the shutdown forced by the coronavirus pandemic in March.
“Covid-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge for our tourism industry, as it has for tourism markets around the world,” said Mrs Dodds.
“I believe the time is right to provide the tourist accommodation sector with clarity about opening dates.
The July 20 date covers guesthouses, guest accommodation, B&Bs, hotels and hostels.
A tourism steering group will be asked to work with the sector to explore what facilities and amenities can safely be made available by hotels and recommendations will be brought to the executive in due course.
Holiday parks, caravan sites and self-catering properties are also covered by the July 20 date.
However, as they are self-contained and may require less advance notice before resuming business, they may potentially have their opening date moved forward, if the scientific advice deems it safe.
Northern Ireland Hotels Federation chief executive Janice Gault welcomed the move.
“The safety of our staff and guests will be paramount in this process,” she said.
“Having an agreed date will help us to plan, promote and give businesses the opportunity to assess their viability.”
However, a hospitality workers’ union, Unite, warned against the erosion of two-metre social distancing in the workplace.
Hospitality organiser Neil Moore said: “There is no possible health-science basis for eroding this protection – it is a demand designed to increase profit at the cost of lives and must be resisted.”
Meanwhile, massive queues formed as home furnishings retailer Ikea opened its doors for the first time in months in Belfast on Monday.
The city saw some of the UK’s longest lines, which were patrolled by social distance wardens, running along the main road outside the store.