Churches and garden centres in Northern Ireland could reopen during a graduated easing of coronavirus restrictions, a Stormont minister has said.
Edwin Poots said some larger churches could put in place social distancing measures or, where that was impossible, worship while remaining in cars may be allowed.
The devolved environment minister also said solitary riverside angling may be permitted as part of responsible adjustments to “harsh” measures limiting the infection’s spread.
He warned that the alternative included paying huge amounts of compensation to garden centres and predicted up to 10,000 agricultural workers could lose their jobs if they did not receive help through the crisis.
An unprecedented 57,000 claims for unemployment benefits have been received during the first five weeks of an emergency which has paralysed the country’s economy.
Mr Poots said: “We can keep people with us by having a graduated response to it and ensuring that we do not put at risk, or in jeopardy, any further rise in this coronavirus, or indeed a second wave of it, whilst giving people a little more latitude to engage in some of the activities that they prefer to engage in.”
The number of confirmed deaths has risen to 338 after nine more were announced by the Department of Health on Wednesday.
Steps would be taken to come out of lockdown when the time was right, health minister Robin Swann has said as he warned against complacency.
Mr Poots added that ministers should consider permitting angling.
“They walk down to the side of a river, they do that on their own,” he said.
“Where there is little impact, those are the things that we can graduate to.”
His own area of responsibility, the agri-food sector, employs 100,000 people and was struggling during the pandemic.
The minister warned: “A 10% contraction in agriculture is 10,000 jobs, it is as simple as that.
“It would be absolutely shameful if agriculture did not get support to get through to the other side of Covid-19 and remade that vibrant industry that existed before all of this happened.”
He added: “Just because you are at the back of the queue does not mean that your needs are any less.”
Mr Poots said the red meat industry had been hit because closure of restaurants meant less demand for higher end cuts of meat.
The milk industry had also suffered because people were not drinking milky coffees in cafes.
Mr Poots said garden centres which were normally large and had limited numbers could also be considered for reopening.
“They are places where you can practise social distancing,” he said.
Mr Poots added that garden centres sold 60 per cent of their goods during this time of year.
“It is incredibly important to them that they have the opportunity to engage in business,” he said.
Communities minister Deirdre Hargey said there had been just over 57,000 new Universal Credit unemployment benefit claims in the last five weeks.
“That is unheard of,” she said.
“There is a huge demand. People are struggling financially, through loss of income or no income at all and they are going towards the social security system.”
Police enforcing restrictions have issued 374 fines and 615 Community Resolution Notices directing people to behave differently.
Meanwhile, Mr Swann emphasised his commitment to transparency on statistics on virus-related deaths.
He said he wanted to explore whether it was possible for the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) to report more frequently than once a week on deaths associated with Covid-19 across hospitals and the community.
He added: “Statistics help us to track the virus and keep the public informed. But the well-established process for death registration was not designed for use in a pandemic of this nature.
“It also has to be stressed that there is a time lag associated with completion of registration of deaths in the community.
“It can take a number of days for the necessary documentation to be completed and fully registered.
“So this makes it very challenging if not impossible to provide daily reports that are fully up to date.”
Picture: Democratic Unionist Party MLA Edwin Poots. (Liam McBurney/PA).