By David Young and Michelle Devane, PA
Northern Ireland has witnessed long shopping queues and buzzing beer gardens as the region took a major step out of lockdown.
Many hospitality and retail outlets reopened their doors after four months of closure on Friday.
Publicans, cafe owners and restaurateurs could serve customers outdoors, while all non-essential retailers were able to pull their shutters up once again.
There were long queues outside popular retail outlets such as Primark in Belfast from early on Friday morning as hundreds of shoppers returned to the city centre.
By lunchtime, beer gardens were bustling as people savoured their first pub pints of 2021.
As more economic wheels started turning, there was also positive news on the vaccine front as Health Minister Robin Swann announced the opening of the programme to the 30-34 age group.
Some limited appointments for people in that cohort have been made available at the mass vaccination centre at Belfast’s SSE Arena.
Economy Minister Diane Dodds welcomed the relaxations on a visit to Belfast’s Victoria Square shopping centre.
Mrs Dodds also highlighted that the Stormont Executive’s delayed high street voucher scheme is set to start operating at the end of the summer, with every adult in Northern Ireland eligible for a £100 (€114.88) prepaid card to spend in the local retail sector.
“Today’s a really good day for the economy,” she said.
“Our shops are opening, our hospitality is able to open outdoors, our self-contained accommodation is opening, we’re announcing the high street voucher scheme.”
Mrs Dodds added that “1.4 million people in Northern Ireland will be entitled to a prepaid card, which will give them £100 to spend in the shops, it’s an investment in local businesses, in local shops here in Northern Ireland.
“This is a huge investment in the high street, in retail, because retail has suffered enormously during the pandemic, and with this almost vicious cycle of lockdowns.”
Licensed and unlicensed hospitality premises can now serve customers in outdoors settings in groups of six from no more than two households.
It means publicans and restaurateurs who have outdoor space can resume operating.
Curfews on takeaways and off-licences have been removed while gyms and swimming pools can reopen for individual activities.
The limit on outdoor gatherings in domestic gardens has increased to 15 people from no more than three households.
Self-contained tourist accommodation, such as caravans and rented holiday homes, can also operate.
The appointments for the 30 to 34-year-olds are mainly available at the mass vaccination centre in Belfast’s SSE Arena. Some appointments may also become available in community pharmacies.
Mr Swann hailed further progress in the vaccine rollout.
“In less than five months we have vaccinated almost one million people, and thousands of our citizens have been able to receive the vaccine well ahead of schedule,” he said.
“I know that we all long for a sustainable return to more normal times and vaccination offers the best hope for this. Uptake is very encouraging, and I’m pleased that we are moving so quickly through the cohorts.
“We have a limited number of slots that we can now offer to those aged 30 to 34, so if you’re eligible, I would urge you to step forward and take the opportunity to get the jab.”
Bar guideline chaos
While the latest easing of restrictions has been widely welcomed, a number of bars said they would not be able to reopen after being told their outdoor areas do not conform to requirements.
Many bar owners say their outdoor areas, now judged to be too enclosed, have not changed from what was permitted to open following the easing of the first lockdown last year.
Outdoor premises should not be more than 50 per cent enclosed, according to health guidance.
Hospitality Ulster said there was “chaos” over the implementation of the rules and many venues had been told their outdoor seating areas did not adhere to guidelines from the Executive.
The Executive has insisted there has been “no change” around rules for outdoor hospitality venues and the “definition of indoor and outdoor areas which applied last year” still 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”.
Northern Ireland took some steps out of lockdown last week after a series of businesses resumed trading for the first time in four months.
Last Friday, close-contact services, including hairdressers and beauty parlours, reopened while driving lessons also restarted, along with theory and practical tests.
Outdoor attractions welcomed back visitors while competitive sport resumed outdoors, with numbers limited to 100, but with no spectators allowed.
More restrictions are set to be lifted on May 24th, although these are subject to review.
Good morning, remember to smile today 😊 pic.twitter.com/Rkd47EFiTO
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) April 30, 2021
From that date, pubs and restaurants can operate indoors, people will be allowed to gather in homes, and indoor attractions can reopen.
Other tourist accommodation such as hotels and B&Bs can also reopen.
Wedding receptions and post-burial events can take place in indoor hospitality venues, after appropriate risk assessments are undertaken.
There was one further death of a patient who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 announced in Northern Ireland on Friday, along with an additional 108 cases of the virus.
On Friday morning, there were 60 Covid-19 inpatients in hospital, with eight classified as intensive care patients.