A plan to reopen Northern Ireland’s hotels, bars, restaurants and cafes as early as 3 July will be discussed by the Stormont executive today.
First Minister Arlene Foster has confirmed the reopening date will be brought forward.
Lockdown was about “draconian measures” aimed at stopping the coronavirus, she told BBC NI’s Good Morning Ulster.
However, Mrs Foster would not be drawn on an exact date.
“It’s fair to say we will be bringing forward the date,” she said.
“We gave an indicative date of 20 July. Thankfully, the spread of disease has continued to fall.”
The proposal aimed at restarting Northern Ireland’s hospitality sector is contained in a plan put together by Economy Minister Diane Dodds.
The plan would also mean self-contained caravans and holiday lets could be used from 26 June.
Hotels had been scheduled to open on 20 July, but many in the industry have been pressing for an earlier date.
From 3 July all hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars that serve food could be allowed to open.
Mrs Foster said that, given the current number of hospital and intensive care admissions, Northern Ireland could now “move in a flexible way”.
The first minister said the plan to move out of lockdown did not contain specific dates.
“We wanted to be flexible and move as the virus moves and this how allowed us to look at things in a proactive way and in an ongoing basis as well.
She said the regulations to curb the spread of the coronavirus were “draconian” and had a detrimental impact on the economy and society in general.
“There’s a need to look at this in a balanced way and move forward when we can.
“We are led by our medical and scientific advice,” she said.
“It’s important that we continue to look at that and, at the same time, recognise the damage these regulations have done to society.”
There were no coronavirus-related deaths recorded in Northern Ireland on Sunday.
The Department of Health’s death toll, which relates mostly to deaths in hospitals, remains at 541.
The economy minister would like to see the two metre social distancing rule changed to enable hotels, bars and restaurants to function.
Mrs Foster said this was an ongoing discussion and acknowledged that some countries had reduced the distance.
“We have recognised the real challenge for the tourism industry in particular and, absolutely education as well,” she said.
But the first minister stressed that that no-one wanted to see a second phase of Covid-19 and it was important to be very careful.
Deputy First Minster Michelle O’Neill confirmed to BBC Northern Ireland’s Sunday Politics programme there would be “significant announcements” in the days ahead.
She said a paper written by Mrs Dodds would be presented to the executive about reopening hotels, bars and cafes and she hoped the industry would be “content”.
The Department of Health has confirmed the R number of the virus in Northern Ireland remains at between 0.5 and 0.9.
R is the number of people each infected person, on average, passes the virus on to and it has been at the heart of Stormont’s decision making. The goal is to keep R under one.
On Sunday, the department also released the scientific data behind how they calculate the number and other estimates on how prevalent the infection currently is in Northern Ireland.
It says the number of people who are infected with coronavirus is currently between 300 and 2,000 – the department says it cannot be more specific because of the large numbers of people who are asymptomatic.
Less than 5% of the population have recovered from Covid-19 and have detectable antibodies, the department suggests, meaning the majority of the population remain susceptible to the virus.
That means “any subsequent waves of the epidemic have the potential to be significantly worse” than the current outbreak, according to the department’s update.
It is estimated that the hospitality industry employs 65,000 jobs and is worth £2bn annually.
The news that a move on reopening the hospitality sector was imminent was greeted with delight from the industry.
Janice Gault, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, said staff in the industry were working hard to make sure their premises were safe and secure for customers.
Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said it was important hoteliers and cafe owners were not put at a disadvantage as similar venues were opening in the Republic of Ireland on 29 June.
He urged the executive to scrap the 2m (6ft) social distancing rule and reduce it to 1m.
He argued the 2m rule meant it was not economically viable for some businesses to reopen.
With a 2m rule some businesses would only reach 30% of their normal turnover whereas at 1m it would rise to 70%, he added.
Stormont ministers are also looking at the possibility of giving cafe and bar owners the chance to use pavements and other outside spaces to serve customers.
It is also expected some venues may have their entertainment restricted to prevent large crowds gathering on their premises.