Northern Ireland news

Stormont to meet over Covid measures as hospitality passports set to be dropped

Checking Covid passports at a Belfast city centre hospitality venue. Picture by Mal McCann.
David Young and Rebecca Black, PA

The Stormont Executive is set to meet this afternoon to discuss the removal of Covid restrictions amid speculation vaccination passports for pubs and restaurants are set to be axed.

It is understood the measures under consideration by the Executive would see several Covid-19 restrictions lifted in two phases – one this week and one next.

From January 21, the requirement for table service in the hospitality sector and the “rule of six” on table numbers would be removed.

Guidance to keep domestic indoor gatherings limited to three households would also be lifted – though gatherings should still be limited to 30 people in total.

In regard to face coverings, the requirement to provide proof of exemption would be removed and the reasonable excuse of “severe distress” would be reintroduced.

Earlier this month, First Minister Paul Givan had already announced the rule to make people prove they were exempt had been suspended.

Mr Givan has also announced the self-isolation period will be cut from seven to five days on January 21.

Under phase two of the proposals, from January 26 nightclubs can reopen and indoor standing events can resume. The prohibition on dancing would be lifted.

The legal requirement for Covid certification for nightclubs and indoor unseated and partially-seated events with 500 or more attendees would remain in place. For all other settings where certification is now required, the legal requirement would be replaced with guidance to “strongly encourage” their continued use.

In workplaces, the requirement for office-based workplaces to take reasonable measures to have two-metre social distancing would be removed – with guidance remaining that risk assessments should still be carried out.

Mr Givan said this morning while he would support the removal of the passports entirely, he anticipated a majority of ministers in the powersharing administration will back proposals to retain the system in higher risk settings.

Laws requiring people to prove Covid status to gain entry to a range of hospitality venues and large-attendance events were introduced last November.

The move proved politically contentious with Mr Givan’s DUP party voting against the scheme while the other four Stormont Executive parties backed it.

Patrons wishing to access nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and other licensed premises have been required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test result or evidence of a previous Covid-19 infection.

The same rules have applied for entry to large indoor and outdoor events, such as concerts and sporting events.

Nightclubs have been closed in Northern Ireland since December 26 as part of a series of restrictions agreed on December 22 in response to the Omicron variant.

Ministers also imposed fresh measures on the rest of the hospitality sector, including a return of table service and a ban on dancing.

Mr Givan said he hoped the Executive would make decisions around easing hospitality restrictions when it meets.

Speaking during a visit to Drry, he said: “We are understanding where Omicron is in our community, in terms of pressures it is creating in our health service and we have a much more positive picture now which gives us the room to take decisions today.

“I am hopeful we will be able to make changes to hospitality, to nightclubs in terms of the prohibition on dancing.

“I believe that later today we will have made significant progress in a number of areas.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said while the pandemic was not over, she believed Northern Ireland had passed the peak of Omicron.

She said: “The pandemic is far from over but we are cautiously optimistic.

“We believe we are through the peak and we believe we have some space now to be able to reverse the protections that we put in place over the course of the last number of weeks.

“It is a positive picture but I would ask people not to be complacent yet, we still have a journey to travel.

“I do think after our Executive meeting we hope we will be able to say positive things that will be welcomed by both individuals and also by the hospitality sector.”

This morning Taoiseach Micheál Martin said people in the Republic can look forward to an earlier than planned lifting of Covid restrictions.

Mr Martin said that current restrictions were due to stay in place until the end of the month but they could be lifted next week.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is meeting today to discuss the easing of restrictions.

It is expected that Nphet will approve the removal of the 8pm closing for the events and hospitality sector that has been in place since before Christmas.

Dublin government ministers will meet tomorrow to assess the advice before the Taoiseach makes an announcement.

Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill will remain in Derry to virtually chair a meeting of the Executive.

The outcome of the deliberations on Covid restrictions is to be announced at a press conference in Derry this afternoon.

The Executive meeting will be informed by the latest Department of Health data which indicates Northern Ireland is likely at the peak of cases in the Omicron surge.

A leaked departmental paper advises that case numbers fell substantially in the last week “primarily due” to reduced PCR tests due to a change in testing policy.

But it notes the north is “likely to be at or around peak in terms of case numbers for the Omicron wave at present”.

The paper indicates the true extent of the rise in case numbers is masked by the impact of the change in testing policy, with confirmatory PCR tests no longer required.

The data suggests between one in 15 and one in 20 of the population tested positive for the virus in the week up to January 7, indicating around 18,000 cases per day, which corresponds to the central and pessimistic scenarios presented in mid-December.

Hospital admissions and Covid bed occupancy increased in the last week, but started to slowly fall in the last few days.

The paper notes Northern Ireland may experience a second peak in case numbers in the next two weeks as a result of further spread of the virus among school-age children.

It notes the severity of Omicron appears to be “substantially reduced” from the Delta variant, and it is “likely that current measures will be sufficient to maintain peak hospital numbers at a significantly lower level than last January”.

However, the paper warns that very high levels of community transmission may result in significant staff absences with the potential to reduce capacity in health trusts.

The proposals, remaining restrictions and guidance to be reviewed at a Stormont Executive meeting today include:

– Legal duty on the retail sector to take reasonable measures to reduce transmission risks.
– Legal requirements on wearing face coverings and associated duty on businesses to ensure mask compliance.
– Legal requirement for Covid-19 related risk assessments.
– Legal requirement for taking track and trace details from customers/patrons.
– Remaining legal requirements for Covid certification.
– Working from home guidance.
– Guidance on taking lateral flow tests before meeting up with others.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Northern Ireland news