At a media briefing this afternoon (February 18) First Minister Arlene Foster outlined the latest decisions made by the Northern Ireland Executive regarding the coronavirus pandemic, with schools to return on a phased basis and up to 10 people, from no more than two households, to be allowed to meet outdoors.

Mrs. Foster confirmed that lockdown will be extended for another four weeks, until April 1, with a review of restrictions on March 18.

The First Minister said: "Today in the Executive we've created our seventh review of the health restrictions and we've had detailed and careful discussions based on the medical and scientific evidence and the necessity, and indeed the proportionality of the measures that are in place."

She continued: "The Executive has reluctantly accepted the analysis from our health advisors that the restrictions will need to be in place for four more weeks, and we will conduct another full review of the regulations on March 18.

"I know that that will come as a disappointment, but it is a pragmatic and a sensible approach and it's important to be clear that we will only maintain restrictions which are proportionate and necessary, and so we will keep them under continual review on an ongoing basis."

Outlining other decisions made by the Executive today regarding schools and essential retail, Mrs. Foster said: "We will be taking small steps as we monitor and assess before moving to any next stages, as the Prime Minister has said we will be informed by data, not by dates. But our first step forward will be the gradual return of schools.

"From Monday, March 8 pre-school and nursery children will return, as well as P1 to P3 to face-to-face teaching. Obviously, the children who are the children of key workers on the other year groups can continue to attend.

"School students engaged in completing qualifications such as GCSE, AS, A Level, and other vocational qualifications, so principally years 12 to 14 will return to full time face-to-face teaching with effect from March 22.

In order to facilitate the return of qualification year students in line with public health advice and considerations, Mrs. Foster explained that children in pre-school, nursery and years 1 to 3 will have remote learning during the week of March 22.

"The intention then is for other students to return to school, as soon as achievable after Easter, with the option of separately facing returns for P4 to P7 pupils and the remaining non-qualification years of post primary," she added.

As the restrictions ease for schools, more mask wearing will be advised in classrooms and on buses, and a testing regime is to be rolled out in post-primary schools.

From March 8, some restrictions are to be eased in the retail sector to allow for the purchase of essential items such as baby equipment, clothing, footwear and electrical items via click and collect.

The number of people who can meet outdoors will also increase from March 8.

Mrs. Foster said: "We're very conscious of one of the greatest challenges for those of us who have families of course is the reduced contact with family, friends and loved ones.

"So we've agreed that from Monday, March 8, we're increasing the number of people who can meet outdoors. Up to 10 people from no more than two households will be able to meet up in a park or in another public space."