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    ‘No plans at present’ to remove Northern Ireland’s social distancing rule

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    There are no plans to remove the one-metre plus social distancing rule in Northern Ireland, the deputy First Minister has said.

    Earlier this week, British prime minister Boris Johnson indicated the rule in Britain could be ditched next month.

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    The final decision on whether the change can be brought in from June 21st will depend on the data, he added.

    Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill answers questions on behalf of the Executive Office in the Stormont Assembly chamber (NI Assembly/PA)

    Michelle O’Neill said there have been no discussions in the Stormont Executive for a similar move, however she said the conversation will be had “in due course”.

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    “I have noted Boris Johnson’s commentary, however the Health Minister hasn’t brought such a proposal to the Executive at this point for discussion but I’m sure that over due course, that is a discussion that we will have to have,” she told MLAs.

    “We make our decisions based on the advice from our own public health team, and certainly at this moment in time there is no advice that suggests that this is where we can change things.

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    “Ultimately of course it’s where we want to get to but it has to be done in a safe and steady way, it has to be done in a way that doesn’t walk us into a corner where we would have to reverse.

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    “There are still risks out there, there are new variants, we need to be very very careful.”

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    Northern Ireland has enjoyed a number of lockdown relaxations in recent weeks, including the reopening of outdoor hospitality and non-essential retail.

    Pedro Donald, owner of the Sunflower Bar in Belfast was told his outdoor area does not conform with requirements (Rebecca Black/PA)

    However, some pubs and cafes say they have been unable to reopen following unsuccessful inspections, despite, they have argued, having the same outdoor facilities that were in place last summer when they were allowed to reopen following the first lockdown.

    Ms O’Neill said different council areas have taken different approaches, and that junior ministers are working with the councils to co-ordinate.

    She said there should not be a “blade of grass” of difference of approach.

    “We are winning in the battle against Covid, and with the public’s continued support, we will continue in this positive vein, however there does seem to have been some disparity of approach and we will try to rectify that,” she told MLAs.

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    Meanwhile changes to visiting arrangements for hospitals and care homes will come into effect on Friday.

    As part of a phased approach to the return of visiting, care home visits will increase from one to two a week, and hospital patients will be allowed to have one daily visit from two people from up to two households.

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    Health Minister Robin Swann said: “Everyone has a vital role to play when it comes to safe visiting.

    “That includes social distancing, hand hygiene and not visiting if you are feeling unwell yourself.”

    No further deaths of patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were notified on Tuesday,

    The Department of Health said there had been an additional 83 cases of the virus confirmed in the last 24-hour reporting period.

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