Northern Ireland news

Time to end Northern Ireland's Covid restrictions, says business chief

The north’s hospitality sector took a severe hit from the emergence of the Omicron variant in December
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Northern Ireland needs to follow the example of devolved governments in Scotland and Wales and lift remaining Covid restrictions, the head of a leading business representative organisation has said.

Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton said predictions about how hard Omicron would hit had been “wide of the mark”, but added the effect of restrictions on businesses was “very real”.

It was announced today that Scotland’s Covid-19 restrictions are to be eased, with nightclubs reopening, large indoor events resuming and social distancing rules dropped from January 24.

Last week, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford announced restrictions to people’s daily lives were to be eased as Omicron cases were falling “rapidly”.

Northern Ireland still has a series of restrictions on the hospitality sector which were introduced last month, including the closure of nightclubs.

Mr Hamilton said: “With Scotland being the latest devolved administration to indicate that they are ending most of the restrictions they introduced before Christmas due to concerns over the spread of the Omicron variant, it is time for the Northern Ireland Executive to follow the example of Scotland and Wales and spell out when restrictions here will similarly end.

“Thankfully, the predictions of experts and some politicians about how hard Omicron would hit us were wide of the mark.

“The effect on the businesses impacted by the restrictions that were introduced has been very real.”

He added: “With our concerns about Omicron now abating and businesses facing many other challenges too, ministers must move fast to remove those restrictions and amend their work from home guidance to help businesses to recover.

“As others start to get back to some semblance of normality, so should we.”

Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said: “The Executive needs to outline a road map toward the full reopening of our economy and a return to some sort of normality.

“We now need a clear and managed plan to safely remove the Covid-19 restrictions and an immediate move to five days isolation to support our members with staff absences.”

He added: “Retail NI also calls upon the Executive to work with the business community to plan for the safe and timely return of public and private sector staff to their offices and workplaces.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Northern Ireland needs a “clear and managed road map” for the easing of Covid-19 restrictions based on the latest health advice.

He added: “Any honest assessment of the management and communication of restrictions throughout the pandemic will conclude that it has been grossly ineffective and has caused unnecessary confusion.

“Delay, indecision and petty politicking has prevented the Sinn Fein/DUP First Ministers from taking clear, communicable actions that would have provided certainty and a sense of leadership to people and businesses that need it most.

“The next phase of our response to the virus cannot be more of the same.

“The Executive needs a clear road map out of restrictions that is rooted in the latest available public health data.

“People need to know what will happen and when we anticipate it will happen.

“It must also include targeted support for those sectors which remain vulnerable to transmission.

“The success of the vaccination programme and the effort made by people to keep each other safe has put us in a good position to begin planning for the recovery phase of the pandemic.

“It cannot be dominated by the chaos of the early response.”

Last week, First Minister Paul Givan expressed hope that the Stormont Executive will be able to announce coronavirus rule relaxations at its next meeting, scheduled for Thursday.

Meanwhile, a further six people who previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland have died, the Department of Health said.

Another 4,081 confirmed cases of the virus were also recorded in the latest 24-hour reporting period.

This morning, there were 412 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 28 in intensive care.

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