Northern Ireland news

Health officials recommend no change to Northern Ireland Covid rules

 It comes after Health Minister Robin Swann warned on Wednesday that a hospital emergency department could be forced to close in a “nightmare scenario” this winter
Jonathan McCambridge and David Young, PA

Health officials have recommended that no changes should be made to remaining Covid-19 regulations and guidance in Northern Ireland.

Stormont ministers are holding their first face-to-face Executive meeting in almost a year on Thursday, when they will consider the advice from chief medical officer Dr Sir Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young.

Remaining restrictions in Northern Ireland include social distancing and mask wearing in some indoor hospitality and retail settings.

A number of ministers had previously indicated that they did not expect any major changes to be made to Covid rules at Thursday’s meeting.

It comes after Health Minister Robin Swann warned on Wednesday that a hospital emergency department could be forced to close in a “nightmare scenario” this winter as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Ministers gathered at Stormont for the meeting, which is expected to last for several hours.

They are set to consider the health advice contained in an Executive Office paper which recommends no changes should be made to current rules.

The nine areas still covered by regulations or guidance are:

– Domestic setting restrictions

– A ban on large house parties and indoor raves

– Working from home messaging

– The need to be seated to consume food and drink in a hospitality setting

– The need to be seated at indoor music events and the ban on dancing

– The requirement to wear face coverings in indoor areas such as retail and public transport

– Social distancing indoors

– The need to carry out risk assessments to stage events

– The requirement to take contact details in certain settings.

At the meeting, ministers will also discuss changes to the travel framework.

Northern Ireland has followed changes made by the UK Government that simplify the traffic light system, with categorisations of green and amber no longer to be used.

But changes to pre-travel and post-arrival testing have not yet been introduced in Northern Ireland and will be discussed by ministers.

Ministers are also likely to discuss mitigating measures including the introduction of vaccine certificates to gain access to bars and restaurants, although no final decision is expected to be made on this at the meeting.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has called for the introduction of vaccine passports, which hospitality groups have resisted.

He said: “The truth is that we have two choices – increase vaccinations or introduce restrictions.”

Earlier this week, First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill both said they expected the Executive to take a cautious approach to Covid measures.

Mr Givan said: “I would hope that we will see some progress on Thursday, but I don’t anticipate seeing all of the restrictions being lifted.”

Ms O’Neill said: “I think it has to be steady as you go, it has to be very cautious.”

On Wednesday Mr Swann warned about the current pressures hospitals in Northern Ireland are facing.

He said: “If all caution is dropped, then our health service crisis will deepen. It would in all likelihood be overwhelmed.”

During the Executive meeting, ministers will also be given a briefing by chair of the Climate Change Committee Lord Deben on climate change issues.

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