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Editorial: End of one-metre rule another milestone

THE Stormont Executive's decision to remove the legal requirement for social distancing in pubs and restaurants represents another significant milestone on the journey out of Covid restrictions.

The ability to mingle freely in a bustling bar has been at the heart of the experience of the Irish social scene for generations.

The lifting of the one-metre rule from October 31 will also allow nightclubs to finally re-open and dance floors to be filled again.

Similar steps have already been taken or agreed in Britain and the Republic, as high rates of vaccination allow risk to be managed and a sense of normality to gradually return to many aspects of daily life.

However, with infection rates still stubbornly high in Northern Ireland - more than 1,200 new cases were reported yesterday and 360 people with Covid were being treated in hospital - no-one can say for sure that restrictions will not be needed again.

Thursday's easing of rules by ministers is tempered by a continuing requirement for face coverings in some settings.

And amid a familiar story of divisions at the executive table, hospitality venues will be urged to put in place entry systems that require proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test.

The Department of Health is also making the necessary preparations for a digital vaccine passport scheme if ministers decide to make it mandatory in future.

Similar conditions were put in place in the Republic for the re-opening of indoor hospitality in July.

Despite initial fears, it appeared to work smoothly and was credited with helping drive up vaccination rates, particularly among young people, although the requirement is due to end later this month.

Businesses in the north will now be asked to show that voluntary arrangements are sufficient.

There is no doubt the hospitality industry has been among the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic and representatives have said the removal of social distancing requirements will give a "huge lift".

They also encouraged businesses to embrace vaccine passport schemes and use them as an opportunity to reassure customers that they can socialise in safety.

Great sacrifices have been made by many people to allow us to reach the stage where the most severe Covid restrictions can be lifted.

We must ensure that the next steps towards a fully reopened economy and society are taken in a sensible and sustainable way.

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