Northern Ireland

Stronger punishments for Covid regulation breaches

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill during a press conference in Parliament Buildings
First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill during a press conference in Parliament Buildings

EXECUTIVE ministers have agreed to increase penalties for breaches of Covid-19 rules to £200.

It has also been decided to extend the places where wearing a face covering is mandatory.

The standard £60 fixed penalty notice will be replaced by a single tariff of £200.

Three other offences will be punishable on conviction by a fine of up to £10,000, or attract a fixed penalty notice starting at £1,000 and going up to maximum of £10,000.

The first of these is not closing a business as required under the regulations.

Two other new offences are being introduced - breaching the early closing requirements for hospitality and not implementing measures to maintain social distancing.

Read More: Why has Northern Ireland among highest infection rates in world?

The new regulations are set to come into force next week.

The mandatory face-covering rule is to apply when boarding a plane, in taxis and private buses, visiting government offices such as benefit offices, banks and building societies, and for both driving instructors and their clients.

While these are mandatory requirements, First Minister Arlene Foster said she would also encourage people to wear face coverings in any setting where social distancing is not possible.

There had been speculation that local restrictions - already in place in the Derry and Strabane area - could have been rolled out to Belfast and Newry, Mourne and Down areas.

This did not happen. Mrs Foster said the growth rate in these areas had been blunted.

"Unlike the north west, the rate of the infection is not running as hard and as fast as it was in that area," she said.

"Unfortunately, when we look at the figures today in the north west it still continues to grow exponentially."

Mrs Foster said the current circumstances "require action from everyone".

"We all have a responsibility to reduce the spread," she said.

"The executive is concerned about the direction of travel set out today by our medical and scientific experts. It's clear that there is a rising curve of cases and hospitalisations, and we will be taking a significant strategic stock-take of the situation and the actions needed to drive down the curve of infection.

"There is no doubt that we together with leaders right across the United Kingdom and beyond are facing some of the toughest decisions that we will ever have to in the days ahead. I'm saying to everyone that how far and how hard the executive will have to go depends on your actions today, tomorrow, over the weekend and the week ahead."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said the executive was "extremely concerned at the steep and dangerous curve of infection that we are now on".

"We are past the point of warnings, this is real and it's happening now, and we're not trying to alarm people but it's important for us to get across in the strongest possible terms that we need your help, we're appealing for everyone to take action now. We can all make a difference now," she said.

Ms O'Neill added that hospital admissions were steadily increasing with a doubling time of eight days.

"If we continue at the rate things are going then the number of people we will see in our hospitals will exceed the first wave in just two-three weeks time," she said.

"We now have a very narrow window to get on top of the situation."

Ms O'Neill said the local restriction situation would be kept under review but said ministers were told and shown evidence the "curve of the infection is starting to stabilise, particularly in Newry, Mourne and Down".

"That is down to the actions of people over the last numbers of weeks," she said.