Northern Ireland news

Stormont ministers to consider relaxing international travel rules

  A social distancing sign in the Stormont Estate in Belfast.
David Young, PA

Stormont ministers will consider a range of proposed relaxations to Covid-19 rules on international travel later.

Health Minister Robin Swann has circulated a paper to executive colleagues proposing that the region follows the rest of the UK from Monday by allowing travellers from EU amber countries and the US who are fully vaccinated to enter without the need to quarantine.

The PA news agency understands that Mr Swann will also bring a proposal to the executive that Uefa VIP guests and Villarreal fans travelling to attend the Super Cup in Belfast on August 11 are exempted from isolation.

Chelsea fans travelling from England for the showpiece match are already not subject to any travel restrictions.

Other proposals on travel to be considered by the executive on Thursday include the return of international cruises from Saturday.

Ministers will also examine a proposal for managed isolation arrangements for international students arriving from red list countries ahead of the new academic term. These arrangements, if approved, would come into effect on August 9.

Mr Swann also wants to establish a bespoke Covid-19 testing regime for international travellers whose jobs qualify them for isolation exemptions. This would potentially come into effect on Monday.

Thursday’s virtual meeting will also see ministers consider some other relaxations of Covid-19 rules within Northern Ireland.

They include the resumption of conferences and exhibitions and a proposal to end social distancing requirements for outdoor activities and reduce the distance to one metre for indoor settings.

It is unclear whether final decisions will be taken on those steps, which are categorised as “higher risk”, and ministers may opt to defer them to their next meeting on August 12.

The weekly update from senior health officials will inform ministers of evidence that rising positive case numbers may have “plateaued” in recent days.

Two explanations are offered for this: altered behaviours due to the good weather or higher levels of immunity among younger people. If it is the former, the advisers predict that case numbers will start to rise again; if it is the latter they expect a gradual decline in case numbers.

Minsters will be told the reproduction rate of the virus has fallen, though it remains “significantly above 1” within a range of 1-2 to 1.6.

Officials will tell ministers that hospital inpatient numbers and intensive care admissions are increasing at a “rapid rate”.

However, they predict that hospital numbers may stabilise in the next seven to 10 days.

The Department of Health briefing paper says intensive care numbers are “higher than we would have expected at this stage”.

In terms of modelling the virus, the officials say the trajectory of case numbers is tracking between central and optimistic scenarios while hospital admissions are between the pessimistic and central models.

Ministers will also be told that the Delta variant of Covid-19 now accounts for 90% of cases in Northern Ireland.

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