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Stormont divisions deepen over Covid enforcement

Robin Swann has called for the Department for Justice to take a lead in Covid regulation enforcement. Picture By Hugh Russell
Paul Ainsworth

Pubs and restaurants may have to close over Christmas as divisions widen in the Executive on who should be responsible for enforcing Covid rules.

Ministers are to continue discussions today on Department of Health proposals that include a covid vaccine certification scheme being introduced for hospitality venues from December 13.

"If the current trajectory continues with regard to the increased cases we are seeing, we may once again face the possibility where venues are asked to close their doors during the Christmas season," Health minister Robin Swann said yesterday.

"But let me be clear, it is not inevitable and I do not want to have to re-introduce further restrictions unless completely unavoidable," he added.

Read More: Return to home working advised to curb Covid spread

Mr Swann and justice minister Naomi Long are at odds over enforcement of the new rules, with Mr Swann wanting the Alliance leader to agree the justice department should pursue "a minimum of 80 percent adherence" to face mask rules.

A letter from Ms Long to the health minister said it would be "entirely inappropriate" for the Executive to agree to Mr Swann's request.

The division has sparked demands for "united voices" within the Executive over Covid regulation enforcement.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "It is an absolute disgrace that the public is learning about proposed changes to Covid restrictions via leaked letters and position papers from the Executive. We are in the middle of a public health crisis that threatens to collapse emergency care in our health service and leave people waiting on urgent operations in the lurch."

He added: "This is a time for united voices, decisive action and clear communication. If we have learned anything from the last 18 months, it’s that the public needs to understand what the changes are, how they will be implemented and what is expected of them. It’s time to get it together."

Sinn Féin vice president, Michelle O'Neill said yesterday's "meeting was constructive and progress was made, it was agreed more work was needed."

Questions over who would be enforcing the rules were also raised yesterday by the chair of the Police Federation of NI, Mark Lindsay, who warned that the 'burden' of enforcement should not fall on the PSNI alone in the weeks and months ahead.

Comparing the rules the indoor smoking ban at hospitality venues, in which enforcement was mainly carried out by venue staff, Mr Lindsay said: "The same should apply to Covid regulations."

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