The Foundation staff have been monitoring the situation closely since the roll out of the vaccine at the end of 2020 and have been in regular communication with officials and colleagues regarding the expected plans for group travel and tourism in 2021.
We have been reluctant to proceed too quickly to change arrangements for our June and September 2021 programmes given everyone’s experiences last year and appreciating how things can change quickly regarding government restrictions and advice. We believe it is right always to be guided by the public health advice and that we take into consideration the wellbeing of our programme participants and Foundation staff.
With the Northern Ireland Assembly’s announcement last week on the country’s expected ‘path out of lockdown’ and following meetings earlier this week with the management team of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland we feel that we are better placed to make a decision on our 2021 Conference schedule than we were earlier this year.
As you may know the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, with a short interlude, has been almost continuously closed since mid March 2020 (as have many other archives across the UK and Ireland). We learned this week that PRONI anticipates they may reopen at some point after Easter, almost certainly with restricted numbers and advance bookings. They cannot predict anything beyond that at present.
However, given England under the Prime Minister’s plan is hoped to reopen by 21 June, it is likely that Northern Ireland will probably not differ too much from that. Thus, at present, they believe it is highly unlikely that PRONI will return to the more usual form of visiting before August (i.e. where searchers can visit more than once a week and without needing to pre-order documents, as was the case under the restricted system of access used in autumn 2020) and onsite visits for groups would be after that time, with no specific date mentioned as yet.
As said, on reopening the arrangements will be very restrictive, PRONI indicated the following to us:
… the service will be much reduced. We will only be operating the Reading Room, however self-service microfilm readers have been moved there as well. It will be by appointment only, slots restricted to no more than one a week per person, and slightly reduced opening hours to the public. Document orders will need to be made in advance. All of this will be subject to ongoing review.
Given that government guidance and instruction on social distancing and business lockdowns over the past year have been fluid and open to rapid change, it was also brought to our attention that PRONI’s policy on group visits and admittance to their archives could also change on a week-to-week or even a day-to-day basis, even into the autumn months of 2021.
In light of this latest advice from PRONI we feel we have no other choice but to postpone our 2021 programmes. In doing so we have not taken this step lightly, but we are aware those who had registered for our 2021 programmes may be thinking about it in respect of your own travel and other plans.
In addition, even though we had been willing to proceed as planned we cannot guarantee that the various tourist attractions and other archives will be able to accommodate visitors or that our transport arrangements would be viable given the possible COVID restrictions which may still be in place.
We have waited as long as possible for clarity on the situation regarding access to the archives but given the advice just recently received we want to communicate this to you as quickly as possible. We are sure that for many of you who have already had to postpone attendance in last year’s programmes this will be frustrating to read but we believe that due to the current uncertainty with travel and tourism that it is the responsible and safe thing to do.
That all being said there are reasons to be optimistic about what lies ahead. For us, we feel that our 2021 programmes will just come too soon into the world’s emergence from the pandemic to proceed as planned, but given the successful and accelerating roll out of the vaccine programme here, declining case rates in the UK (not least in Northern Ireland) and the hopefully permanent re-opening of ‘non-essential’ businesses within Northern Ireland later this year, the Foundation will be able to return to offering our full suite of conferences and research programmes in 2022. To make up for the frustration and disappointment of not being able to welcome groups to Ireland in 2020 and 2021 we hope that what we have to offer in 2022 will be even more special and memorable.