Northern Ireland news

Executive agrees to relax Covid rules at home and in pubs and restaurants

The requirement for table service will be removed.
Jonathan McCambridge and David Young, PA

Stormont ministers have agreed a number of further relaxations of Covid-19 regulations at home and in hospitality settings.

During a four-hour Executive meeting on Monday, ministers also discussed concerns about the rising number of pupils who are currently off school due to Covid. Sinn Fein has called for the Assembly to be recalled to discuss the situation.

Under the new rules agreed by ministers, which come into effect at 5pm on Friday, the maximum number of people who can meet indoors will increase to 15 people from four households.

In hospitality venues, the requirement for table service will be removed and customers will be permitted to stand while consuming food and drink in outdoor settings.

Customers will also be permitted to take part in activities such as playing pool or darts or using gaming machines.

Dancing will again be allowed at weddings and civil partnership receptions and the requirement to purchase tickets in advance for live performances will be removed, as will the need for audience members to have allocated seats.

First Minister Paul Givan welcomed the latest changes, but said he hoped further relaxations would be announced soon.

He said: “Today is progress. We have taken on board the health situation and the wider societal, community and economic information as well. Ultimately, I want to see more progress. I would have like to have seen progress around social distancing, moving that from regulation into guidance, but that is something that will now form the discussions on Thursday.

“Other jurisdictions, England and Wales and Scotland, they are lifting their restrictions or have already lifted them. The Republic of Ireland has now set October 22 as their final date for all restrictions to go and we are moving to that position in Northern Ireland where ultimately we can have these issues dealt with through good advice, rather than having the law and enforcement.”

Sinn Fein junior minister Declan Kearney said the new measures were “prudent and proportionate”.

He added: “The reality is that we are still living with a very dangerous level of community infection.

“Covid-19 is very active within our community, we are not out of the woods yet. The levels of infection are much too high. We are still seeing very significant pressures on our health workers.

“We need to ensure that we have a very focused approach in ensuring that we are creating the most safe environment possible.”

The Executive also discussed concerns over the number of pupils currently absent from school due to Covid, and the resulting pressure it is placing on the testing system.

In one instance, the principal of Larne High School reported that more than half of his pupils have been told to stay at home.

When pupils are off school as a close contact, they have to take a Covid test on day two of their absence. If it is negative they are allowed to return to school but have to take another test on the eighth day after contact.

There have been reports of long queues at some Covid testing centres in Northern Ireland, with some facilities struggling to accommodate the number of students requiring a test to return to school.

Mr Givan said there were concerns that some schools were taking a “blanket approach” to self-isolation.

He said: “It is a concern if there are some schools which are deciding to go against public health advice because we have moved on from the requirement for a universal 10-day period of isolation. A blanket approach being taken to pupils, I don’t think that is appropriate.”

But Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan said there was a “lack of clear Covid-19 guidance for schools”.

He added: “The Education Minister needs to give clear guidance and put in place the necessary resources to support our school staff in keeping schools open.

“I have initiated a recall petition to ensure that the Education Minister comes to the Assembly and sets out exactly what the Department of Education will do to support schools.”

The Executive meeting, which was delayed from last week after deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill contracted Covid, heard that the number of positive cases in Northern Ireland has begun to decline in the last few days, and that hospital admissions are expected to begin to decline.

Meanwhile, nine further deaths of patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 have been reported in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Health said there had also been 1,764 new confirmed cases in the last 24-hour reporting period.

On Monday morning, there were 407 Covid-19 inpatients in hospital, 46 of whom were in intensive care.

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