Stormont Executive meets to consider Covid-19 rule changes
Northern Ireland ministers will convene later to consider further relaxations to Covid-19 rules, with the restrictions on the hospitality sector set to be a key focus.
Last month First Minister Paul Givan signalled that October 14 could see significant changes to coronavirus measures that continue to apply in the region, but that any moves would be subject to Executive approval today.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has struck a cautious note on the prospect of major relaxations, stressing the need for a precautionary approach to ensure the under-pressure health service is not overwhelmed by a fresh surge in cases.
Last week, ministers agreed to end social distancing restrictions for shops, theatres and a number of other indoor settings.
They issued beefed-up guidance to business and venue owners to mitigate the impact of allowing a return to full capacity.
However, ministers did not take a decision on the hospitality sector and capacity remains limited in bars and restaurants due to the ongoing one metre social distancing requirement.
At Thursday’s meeting, the Executive is expected to discuss whether that rule should now be scrapped for hospitality outlets as well and, if so, what mitigations should accompany it.
Last week’s decision to end social distancing in the retail sector, indoor attractions and seated indoor venues proved controversial as ministers clashed over whether mandatory vaccine passports should be introduced as an entry requirement.
SDLP minister Nichola Mallon proposed mandatory Covid vaccine certification for entry to indoor seated venues but was outvoted by other ministers, who instead decided to issue guidance recommending the use of proof of vaccine as one entry requirement.
They suggested venues could also use a negative lateral flow test result or evidence of a positive PCR test within the previous six months as other ways to gain entry.
Health Minister Robin Swann subsequently expressed frustration at the failure of the Executive to develop a certification system that could be rolled out in Northern Ireland if required.
He said he did not back Ms Mallon’s proposal to make passports mandatory for indoor seated venues because such a scheme was “neither agreed nor ready”.
The issue of vaccine certification is set to feature again in discussions on Thursday as ministers consider potential mitigations if they allow the hospitality industry to return to full capacity.
As well as social distancing in the hospitality sector, other areas still covered by regulations or guidance in Northern Ireland are:
– Numbers allowed to gather in domestic indoor settings
– A ban on large house parties and indoor raves
– The Executive’s “work from home where possible” message
– 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
– The need to carry out risk assessments to stage events
– The requirement to take contact details in certain settings.