Northern Ireland‘s ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown will be announced later today, after Stormont ministers met earlier to review and refine the region’s exit strategy.
However, key parts of the document have already been obtained and leaked by the Belfast Telegraph, and show a highly cautious exit strategy. Ministers had previously stressed that the blueprint due to be officially published by First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill on the floor of the Assembly in Belfast later today, will be led by data, not dates, and this has proved true. The report gives no official timeline towards reopening.
Northern Ireland has had strict measures in place since last year, and relaxations have been minimal so far: the most notable were on January 2, when a previous 8 pm curfew was lifted, allowing residents to shop in ‘essential’ retail stores after 8pm, and order takeaways up to 11pm.
However, the region’s ‘Stay at Home’ order became legally enforceable on January 8, and currently people can only leave home with a “reasonable excuse”, for instance for medical or food shopping, exercise and work that cannot be done from home. On February 18, this order was extended until April 1, after cases rose following St Patrick’s Day (March 17).
With the region’s lockdown exit strategy giving little away in regards to an actual timeline, many questions still remain for those looking to holiday there this year.
Here, we answer the key questions about travel to Northern Ireland.
What are the lockdown rules in Northern Ireland?
On January 2, a few restrictions were loosened: essential retail and hospitality services were allowed to start trading past the 8pm curfew, and church services were allowed to resume with a cap of 25 people on weddings and funerals. Many rules still remain in place, however. These are:
Hospitality venues such as cafes, restaurants, pubs, bars and social clubs are closed, with the exception of providing food and drink via takeaway, drive-through or delivery.
All delivery services are only allowed until 11 pm.
Close contact services e.g. hairdressers and beauty salons must close.
Personal exercise can only be done outside. Gyms remain closed.
Households are not allowed to mix indoors except for certain exceptions, including support bubbles, childcare and maintenance work.
Up to two households can gather in public spaces outdoors, with no more than six people per group. This includes children.
Indoor sports are banned except for professional athletes .
Leisure and entertainment venues such as theatres, concert halls, cinemas, amusement arcades, bingo halls, bowling alleys and skating rinks are closed.
Overnight stays are banned unless it is with a member of your bubble.
Higher education institutions, such as universities can only deliver distanced learning.
People should work from home unless unable to do so.
Since January 8, the police have been granted powers to issue £200 fines to rule breakers (lowered to £100 if paid within 14 days), increasing up to £3,200 for repeat offenders. Since January 25, a new £800 fine has also been put in place for anybody who attends a gathering of more than 15 people.
When will Northern Ireland’s lockdown lift?
April 1 has been given as the absolute earliest date that lockdown may end. Though infection rates and Covid-related hospital admissions have fallen during lockdown, the Executive is still concerned over new variants of the virus, and mindful of lifting restrictions too soon: the more infectious Kent strain is currently thought to account for 50-60 per cent of cases in the region.
This is highlighted by today’s lockdown exit strategy, believed to be headlined as ‘Pathway to Recovery’. Due to be detailed to the Stormont Assembly in the next few hours, a leaked version of the document shows a step-by-step reopening of nine ‘pathways’ including:
Sports and Leisure
Worship and Ceremonies
Travel and Tourism
Home and Community
Each area has five steps out of lockdown. Progressing through each of the five phases will depend on heath-based data being in favour of loosening the rules. No set dates are given, and the stages are:
Cautious First Steps
Preparing for the Future
The infection rate of the virus, known as the R number, hospitalisations, vaccine rollout and progress in testing and tracing positive cases will all be factors in whether an area is allowed to move to the next step. There will be a rolling review every four weeks, in line with how regulations are currently reviewed. The next review of restrictions is scheduled for March 18.
When will hospitality reopen in Northern Ireland?
Stage 2 for Northern Ireland’s hospitality will be the lifting of curfew on takeaway (which is currently prohibited past 11pm). Premises that cannot serve alcohol will also be allowed to open with table service for groups of up to six from no more than two households.
Stage 3 sees the reopening of premises where alcohol can be consumed, again with table service for groups of up to six, with the exception of wet pubs. Wet-led pubs (i.e. establishments that aren’t able to serve food alongside their drinks) will be allowed to reopen with only table service in Stage 4, which will also see ‘limited entertainment relaxations’. Bar service is permitted from Stage 5 onwards, the rule of six will be relaxed, and nightclubs and live entertainment will resume.
No dates have been provided for any of these stages, but it is possible that Stage 2 – which would allow visitors to have a meal in a restaurant – will start in April, following the lifting of lockdown on April 1.
Can I travel to Northern Ireland?
Unlike in England, Scotland and Wales, travel outside the country is not actually banned in Northern Ireland, with ministers instead issuing guidance against non-essential travel between Northern Ireland and both Great Britain and the Irish Republic. A 10-day quarantine is also advised for anyone travelling into the region, but similarly not enforced.
This does not hold true for those in Britain, who are under Level 4 lockdown rules; banning all non-essential travel.
Similarly, hotels and other accommodation providers in Northern Ireland can currently only operate on a restricted basis for those already resident, for work related purposes, for vulnerable people, those in emergency situations and people unable to return home, making it impossible to stay within the region as a tourist.
When will Northern Ireland welcome tourists again?
Currently, everything but essential travel is advised against in Northern Ireland, with all tourist accommodation closed to tourists and only public transport in place.
Stage 2 sadly sees little change to this, with only an increase in the capacity of public transport mentioned. For Culture, Heritage and Entertainment, outdoor visitor attractions will be permitted to reopen in Stage 2.
It isn’t until Stage 3 that some tourism accommodation options become available again. Caravan sites will be allowed to open, but with no shared facilities, while hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs will reopen with limitations. Indoor visitor attractions will also reopen, as will libraries and ‘low-risk activities’.
Under Stage 4, hostels, bunkhouses, and the shared facilities on campsites will reopen, as will campus accommodation for tourism purposes. Hotels will also be able to offer a wider array of services, beyond just food, drink and a place to rest your head. Theatres, concert venues and cinemas will reopen, and outdoor organised events (with limitations on numbers).
By Stage 5, Northern Ireland will be ‘preparing for the full return of leisure travel’, and large-scale outdoor events, like concerts and festivals, will be permitted again.
Should I book a holiday in Northern Ireland?
With the most information given so far this year, the roadmap is exciting stuff for anyone keen on a holiday in Northern Ireland – but crucially, there are absolutely no dates included on the document.
This means that calculations on when these stages may actually be put into place involves a fair bit of guesswork. What we do know is that April 1 is marked as the earliest date for the lifting of lockdown – or Stage 1 – which would put Stage 2 starting in April at the earliest. With four week reviews in place, the earliest Stage 3 could start is May, and similarly June would be the earliest Stage 4 could begin. Stage 5 could potentially start in July.
This means that though April 12 could mark the start of domestic travel in England, Northern Ireland is likely to only be in Stage 2 at this point, a stage where tourist accommodation will still be barred from opening. Realistically, May 1 is the earliest date you may be able to stay in a hotel or B&B in Northern Ireland – and taking this estimate as gospel is highly risky. June may be a far safer bet for those looking to enjoy the sights of the Causeway Coast or Belfast this summer, and desperate to lock plans in now.
Given the lack of dates – and the wariness of the Executive – booking anything right now comes with the risk that your holiday might not go ahead and that you may lose some, or all of, the money you had paid towards it. For now, holding off until further information is released is likely the wisest course of action.
Read more: When can I go on holiday abroad?