Stormont’s leaders said Northern Ireland can look to a brighter future as they announced a sweeping range of Covid-19 lockdown relaxations.
The reopening of the tourism and hospitality sectors were fast-tracked as part of a series of measures agreed by ministers on Thursday.
The plan signed off by the devolved executive includes three key relaxation dates, April 23, April 30 and May 24.
The measures were outlined by First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill to a special Assembly committee on Thursday evening.
Under the plans, hairdressers can reopen on April 23, pubs and cafes can serve people outdoors from April 30 and indoors from May 24.
Hotels will be able to fully reopen on May 24 as well.
The May 24 date is indicative and subject to another Executive review earlier in that month.
After lengthy discussions through Thursday, ministers brought forward a series of reopening dates they had been initially considering.
With Northern Ireland having marked one million Covid-19 vaccines by last weekend and with other key health and scientific indicators going in the right direction, ministers have agreed the most significant steps out a lockdown that started just after Christmas.
Mrs Foster said: “This is a landmark day for Northern Ireland as we step firmly and with confidence on our pathway to recovery.
“I am pleased and proud that through our collective efforts we have reached a point where we have established a good level of control over the virus.
“We are now entering brighter and better times.
“This balanced package of relaxations will restore those familiar aspects of everyday life that have been missed dearly.
“I urge everyone to stay with us and keep following the health advice so that we can continue with our plans to more fully open up our society over coming weeks.”
Ms O’Neill added: “Today, the light at the end of the tunnel has just got a little bit brighter.
“This is a day of positive progress.
“We have agreed a significant package of easements which will make a fundamental difference to people’s lives and wellbeing.
“The restrictions have been a necessary response to the pandemic, to suppress the virus and save lives.
“But they have taken their toll on people right across our society.
“I’m delighted that we are now in a position to move forward, thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of the public and the success of our vaccination programme.
“We can all take comfort from this progress and look forward to doing the things that are important to us while keeping ourselves and others as safe as possible.”
The Stormont Executive has agreed the following lockdown relaxations.
– April 23
Close contact services, hairdressers and beauty salons, reopen.
Outdoors visitor attractions reopen.
Driving lessons can resume. Theory and practical driving tests resume.
Outdoor competitive sport will be allowed with numbers not exceeding 100. No spectators allowed.
Outdoor sport training extended to full squad training.
Equine assisted learning and therapy can take place outdoors and indoors, limited to 30 people.
Static band practice/rehearsals can resume outdoors.
– April 30
All remaining non-essential retail to reopen.
Self-contained tourist accommodation, such as caravans and rented holiday homes, can operate.
Licensed and unlicensed premises can serve customers in outdoors settings in groups of six from no more than two householders.
Removal of curfews on takeaways and off licenses.
Reopening of gyms and swimming pools for individual activities.
Limit on outdoor gatherings in domestic gardens increased to 15 people from no more than three households.
– May 24 (indicative date)
Licensed and unlicensed premises can operate indoors.
Rest of tourist accommodation can reopen.
Domestic gatherings indoors allowed.
Indoors visitor attractions reopen.
Return of indoor group exercise, with numbers limited to suit the size of venue.
Wedding receptions and post-burial events can take place in indoor hospitality venues, after appropriate risk assessments are undertaken.
Northern Ireland took some further gradual steps out of lockdown on Monday.
The remainder of post-primary students, years eight to 11, returned to school, while a limited number of outdoor-focused retail outlets, such as garden centres and car dealerships, reopened.
The “stay-at-home” messaging was also replaced with “stay local” advice.
Other relaxations on Monday saw the number of people who can meet outdoors in a garden, including children, increase from six to 10.
Click-and-collect services for non-essential retail also resumed.
Outdoor sports training was allowed for recognised clubs, in groups of up to 15, provided all indoor facilities except toilets remain closed.
The number of people allowed to attend marriage and civil partnership ceremonies also increased, at a level informed by a risk assessment for the venue.
Two further deaths of patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 were announced in Northern Ireland on Thursday along with another 159 cases of the virus.