Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster has vowed that they must never return to lockdown, after a cautious plan to ease restrictions was published.

The power-sharing administration has outlined its pathway to recovery, but faced criticism for not attaching dates to it.

Mrs Foster said they are "asking people to work with us so that we can make this the last" lockdown.

"That is what I am focused on," she said. "Because we certainly cannot go back into a lockdown again."

The blueprint to reopen society focused on nine areas, such as retail, hospitality and education. 

The document does not include any target dates and ministers have promised that decisions on moving between stages will be based on scientific and medical evidence, not the calendar.

Mrs Foster said the Pathway to Recovery plan, agreed by all ministers, was a direction of travel and would help encourage optimism.

She added: "The evenings are getting brighter now, I know people are looking to get rid of these restrictions.

"Certainly there is a lot of frustration out there."

Stormont Executive ministers signed off on the strategy earlier today.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said the strategy offers a "careful, cautious and hopeful" plan for charting a journey out of restrictions.

She said Northern Ireland would turn a corner in the battle against Covid-19 in 2021, but she stressed "we are not out of the woods".

"This is a day very much of hope," said Ms O'Neill. "We must do everything we can to try to make this one the last lockdown, with the underpinning insurance policy that this executive will take the steps needed to protect the health service.

"Taking all these factors together, we can take some tentative preparatory steps towards the lifting of restrictions. But great care is still needed.

"That is why the executive has agreed today a careful, cautious and hopeful approach to existing restrictions."

Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster outlined NI's pathway to recovery

Ms O'Neill said the plan built in time between phases of relaxations to provide space to examine evidence on the prevalence of the virus.

"That time will be used carefully to look at the results of the regular modelling and assess if it is safe to take the next step," she said.

She said cooperation with the Republic of Ireland and other UK administrations was important.

"We are willing to learn from what works best elsewhere and we are willing to share our experiences here," she said.


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The Executive will review the progress of the pathway every four weeks.

Northern Ireland's lockdown and accompanying stay-at-home message is currently in place until 1 April.

Ministers had been due to review that policy on 18 March, but that date has now been brought forward to 16 March.

The Executive has already outlined plans for a phased return of face-to-face learning at schools.

Only vulnerable children and those of key workers have been attending classes in mainstream schools since January.

P1 to P3 primary school children will return to school on 8 March, and on 22 March secondary school children in key exam years - years 12-14 - will go back to class.

On that same date, the P1 to P3s are currently due to revert to home learning for one week ahead of the Easter holidays - to mitigate the impact on infection rates of the secondary school cohort's return.

However, officials from the departments of health and education were asked last week to examine that aspect of the plan and Mrs Foster has expressed hope that those primary pupils will ultimately be able to remain in school that week.

No date has so far been given for the return of the wider school population.