Northern Ireland's First Minister has said she hopes the Stormont Executive will revisit the dates for reopening schools.

Arlene Foster said she wants to give the public optimism when the path out of lockdown in the region is revealed next Monday but cautioned that this must be the last.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out a four-stage plan for exiting lockdown earlier today. The first stage includes the return to school for all pupils in England on 8 March.

Under Mr Johnson's four-step plan, all limits on social contact could be lifted by 21 June.

In Northern Ireland, some primary school pupils will return to class on 8 March, with some older post-primary school children on 22 March, but there has been no date given for the full return of the wider school population.

Ahead of a meeting of the Executive on Thursday, Mrs Foster said she hoped that could be revisited.

She said Education Minister Peter Weir's preferred option was to have all children back at school on 8 March.

"Unfortunately our health advisers didn't think that that was the right way forward and I understand that we have to take a safe and sustainable way forward, but I hope we can now revisit that again because I know full well from my own personal experience that the kitchen table is no substitute for a classroom," she told the BBC.

The First Minister emphasised she wanted to ensure that this is "the last lockdown", and said she wants to give optimism.

"I very much hope that we can give optimism next Monday, that's what I want to give - brighter days are coming, people do feel a sense of optimism, not least because of our vaccination programme... over 32% of our adult population have now been vaccinated, nearly 500,000 vaccines have been deployed and that gives a lot of hope to a lot of people."

Another four deaths linked to Covid-19 were confirmed in the North today and another 187 cases of the virus were also notified.

Earlier Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill cautioned the public not to expect a rapid exit from lockdown, insisting the route back to normality will be slow and steady.

Michelle O'Neill

Answering Assembly questions today, the Sinn Féin vice president acknowledged that people were looking for some hope around what the future held.

"We very much want to give the public the route map and how we're going to reverse out of the current restrictive measures which we have in place," she said.

"So I think that everybody's looking for some hope and they're looking towards the future.

"We want to spell that out for people and it needs to be a step-by-step process but there's no doubt in my mind that it needs to be gradual.

"It's going be slow and steady in terms of lifting of restrictions.

"But with the rollout of the vaccine in place now and the fact that it's working so well, and we commend all those that are involved in delivering the vaccine, that combined with keeping the virus suppressed for as long as possible, then we need to chart out for people what the future looks like and we hope to do that next week," said Ms O'Neill.

Ministers have already agreed to extend Northern Ireland's current strict lockdown to 1 April, albeit with a review on 18 March.