Rules on self-isolation in Northern Ireland are to be relaxed, Stormont ministers have agreed.
People who are close contacts of positive cases will no longer have to isolate for 10 days, as long as they test negative, have no symptoms and have had both jabs of a Covid-19 vaccine.
The move, which was agreed at a virtual meeting of the powersharing Executive and comes into effect on Monday, brings Northern Ireland into line with rule changes already agreed for the rest of the UK.
At Thursday’s meeting, ministers also agreed to end class bubbling arrangements in schools.
However, ministers decided to retain the use of face coverings in post-primary school classrooms for the first six weeks of the new term.
The relaxation to the self-isolation rules also apply to close contacts in school settings.
Ministers also agreed a series of other rule changes at the meeting.
Steps, which apply from Monday, include the removal of the cap on the number of people who can gather together outside in domestic gardens; the end of household bubbling arrangements; scrapping social distancing requirements on public transport; and the removal of a six-person limit at tables in hospitality venues.
The removal of the six-person table limit will also apply to wedding receptions.
Ministers have also agreed that conferences and exhibitions can resume.
There will also be a full return to face-to-face onsite learning at universities and further education colleges.
The Executive’s advice for people to work from home if they can remains unchanged.
Aside from public transport, other social distancing rules and guidance remain unchanged, as do the rules around wearing face masks in indoor settings.
The number of people who can meet inside a domestic home remain capped at 10, from no more than three households.
Ministers also did not take a decision in relation to the ongoing ban on nightclubs operating in Northern Ireland.
The Executive met for the first time in two weeks amid continuing high infection rates in Northern Ireland.
Transmission rates in the region are the highest in the UK.
For the seven days up to August 1, the region’s infection rate was 445.3 per 100,000 of the population.
This was almost twice as high as the rate in England (282.1) and more than three times as high as the rate in Scotland (143.6) and Wales (141.5).
First Minister Paul Givan said he would have liked the Northern Ireland Executive to have moved further around some of the restrictions on hospitality, particularly the continuing requirement for table service only.
“Other colleagues in different parties didn’t take that approach, so we then had to find consensus and we ultimately were able to agree on quite a wide range of areas, but yes there were areas that I would like to have seen further progress made,” he said.
Mr Givan expressed hope that all remaining regulations could be removed by the end of September.
He said Northern Ireland had to move away from trying to regulate its way out of the pandemic, with greater reliance instead placed on guidance, best practice and personal responsibility.
“Certainly from my party’s perspective, we’re getting to the point where personal responsibility, taking informed decisions at an individual level is how we need to address this,” he said.
“The justification to have regulations in place for this is diminishing and I don’t believe it is proportionate. But that’s something that the Executive will come to an agreed position on over the next number of weeks.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the decisions taken by the Executive were “cautious” and “proportionate” to the current high infection rates in Northern Ireland.
Ms O’Neill said health officials had advised that the region was currently at the peak of the current wave of infections, and numbers should start dropping in the coming weeks.
She said the Executive would be in a better position to make decisions on remaining restrictions come the first week of September.
“Hopefully what we’ve done today is to demonstrate that with the public support we’re continuing to make progress,” she told reporters in Coalisland, Co Tyrone.
“We’re not there yet but we’re certainly getting there and we’re hoping that we’ll start to see a fall in the number of positive cases daily over the coming weeks.”
Ms O’Neill again stressed the need to increase vaccine uptake in Northern Ireland.
“It’s not about vaccine shaming or anything like that but anybody who hasn’t had the vaccine yet we would encourage people to please take it up, it’s the best thing we can do,” she said.
Three further deaths of patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 were reported in Northern Ireland on Thursday, along with 1,610 new confirmed cases of the virus
On Thursday morning, there were 341 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 42 in intensive care.