Northern Ireland news

Stormont to decide on ‘additional asks' to fight latest Covid wave

Health Minister Robin Swann during the opening of a COVID-19 booster vaccination centre at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast.
Picture date: Tuesday December 21, 2021. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire 

The Stormont Executive is to decide what “level of asks” will be made of the public to curb the latest surge in Covid-19.

Cases are already increasing ahead of the expected peak following the arrival of the Omicron variant in the north earlier this month.

The PA news agency understands that the powersharing administration is set to consider a range of steps aimed at tackling the spread of Omicron when it meets virtually on Wednesday.

While no widespread shutdown of sectors of the economy or society are expected, ministers could move to close down nightclubs again.

The rest of the hospitality sector could see the reintroduction of restrictions aimed at reducing interaction.

These could include the rule of six on table numbers and a requirement for people to remain seated.

Bolstered mitigations for retail sector are also expected, including capacity restrictions, one-way systems and screening.

Social distancing measures for office working will also be examined, with new workforce Covid testing procedures potentially introduced.

Fresh guidance on limiting household mixing in domestic settings is also set to be considered.

Ministers will also deliberate on how to spend the extra £100 million of Treasury funding allocated to the Executive to support the efforts to combat Omicron.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is among the latest people to test positive for the virus.

He tweeted that he is continuing to work, although with a “croaky” voice.

Health Minister Robin Swann said Northern Ireland is a number of days behind London and Scotland, but he expects to see a further increase in cases, and urged the public to get vaccinated and boosted.

“We’re still managing a high number of Delta variant cases; we expect Omicron to become the dominant variant, possibly this side of Christmas, and, if not, after Christmas,” he said.

Speaking to the media during a visit to the new vaccination centre at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in east Belfast today, Mr Swann declined to “pre-empt” any decisions or announcements that may be made.

However, he confirmed there will be “additional asks” of the public.

“What I will say is I think it has to be a joint united message that comes out of the Executive tomorrow in regards of the asks that we may have to make of the people of Northern Ireland, because we have always been clear that we’ll not boost our way out of the Omicron and the threat of what is actually in front of us at this minute in time,” he said.

“There will be additional asks – the level of those will be decided by the Executive and will be announced by the Executive tomorrow.”

Mr Swann also renewed his appeal to the public to come forward for vaccination.

He revealed that up to two-thirds of Covid-19 hospital patients under the age of 50 are unvaccinated.

Mr Swann also said he expects a decision from the UK’s chief medical officers on the 10-day isolation period in the coming days and confirmed that an additional request for military aid has not been made in the vaccination push.

“We have made a number of those requests over the past 20 months, we have considered it in regards to our vaccine programme, but really the timing of what we needed to do, what we needed to mobilise, we weren’t able to get that in place,” he said.

“Fortunately, from what we can see behind us, what we’ve seen across Northern Ireland, it is not currently needed, and I think it is a testimony to the people who have been working in our vaccine programme, from GPs, community pharmacy, or in our trust facilities.

“The buzz that we have here, the number of people who had volunteered previously that have come back out and volunteered again… so a huge testimony to the people who have pulled not just this facility together but continue to vaccinate across Northern Ireland.

“Over 500 walk-ins already here this morning shows the desire of people of Northern Ireland still to come forward and get their vaccinations.”

Asked about people attending traditional Boxing Day sporting events, Mr Swann said the Covid certification scheme will cover those facilities.

“What I will say to anyone who is intending to go to one of those sporting events is follow the guidance, wear a face mask if you’re travelling to it, but also think about your activities around those sporting events – how you get there, how you get away from there, your activities before and after those sporting events.

“If they are outdoors follow the guidance, and again make sure you come forward to get your vaccines and booster,” he said.

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