Prison visits are to resume from 27 July, Justice Minister Naomi Long announced today.
The announcement was made as Executive ministers approved more easements to the Covid-19 lockdown, including the ability for places of worship to hold baptisms and indoor marriage ceremonies.
With preparations underway to ensure prison visits follow all health guidelines to keep staff, inmates and visitors safe, Minister Long revealed: “The work being done to keep our prisons safe for staff and those in our care has been hugely impressive and I want to pay tribute to the Prison Service and our partners for their dedication throughout this time. The careful reintroduction of visits will be welcome progress for families and those in our care: family contact is an important part of rehabilitation and I’m pleased we are now in a position to move this forward.”
The Northern Ireland Prison Service has during lockdown harnessed technology to keep prisoners in touch with their loved ones.
More than 8,000 virtual visits have taken place since April.
The guidance on prison visits has also been updated and recommends:
Where possible virtual visiting remains the preferred option;
Anyone showing or experiencing the symptoms of Covid-19 or any other infection should not visit, even if these symptoms are mild and unconfirmed;
Visitors must rigorously follow public health hygiene advice – washing heads before and after visits, using hand sanitiser gel and maintain social distancing;
Only one visitor is permitted to visit at a time;
Children under the age of 16 will not be permitted to visit. In the event of exceptional circumstances, this can be raised through the internal request mechanism; and
Visitors will be required to undertake a temperature check upon entry to any NIPS establishment.
Indicative arrangements for the resumption of indoor weddings, civil partnerships and baptisms were approved by ministers at today’s Executive meeting.
Subject to final ratification at the next meeting of the Executive this Thursday (July 9), ministers agreed that places of worship may resume baptisms from this Friday.
Provided the rates of Covid-19 infection remain below the R rate of 1, ministers will also be asked on Thursday to confirm that indoor marriage ceremonies will take place in places of worship from July 10.
Local government offices and other venues will also be permitted to host marriage and civil partnership services from the same date.
However it will be up to individual venues to determine their precise opening date and to conduct risk assessments to ensure they have appropriate measures in place.
They must also ensure all ceremonies and post ceremony events are conducted in line with public health advice.
Economy Minister Diane Dodds said the Executive’s decision on wedding venues was another step forward for the hospitality sector.
The Minister stressed: “Hotels and private venues will need to assure themselves that they have taken the appropriate steps to put precautions in place for the safety of staff and customers. It is, therefore, likely that many will not be ready for July 10. However they are free to host weddings any time after that date once they have measures in place.”
Minister Dodds said it was also essential that clear guidance is given to hotels and private venues about what would and would not be permitted on their premises.
She noted: “Wedding celebrations, irrespective of where they are held, are associated with social interaction, line-ups and hand shaking, as well as music and dancing. My officials will work with colleagues in the Executive Office and Department of Health to develop guidance, ensuring that any issues specific to hotels are also covered.”
Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín welcomed a £33 million boost to the Northern Ireland Executive’s budget, following the announcement by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that they are to invest £1.57 billion in cultural, arts and heritage institutions.
With Executive ministers to decide how the £33 million will be spent, Minister Ní Chuilín argued a comprehensive package for the arts sector in Northern Ireland was needed.
The Minister said: “Whilst ultimately it will be for the Executive to decide on how this money should be spent, the argument for a comprehensive package of support to local musicians, freelancers, theatres, artists, museums and the heritage sector at a time when they are struggling to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be overstated.
“Last week, I announced that the sector is to benefit from an initial £4m from Executive funds. However, it was always expected that much more additional finance would be required to help protect the sector that is vital to our economy and wellbeing.
“I will be making strong representations to my Executive colleagues at the earliest opportunity on how this money should be spent to ensure the short term and long term sustainability of the sector.”