Ministers in Northern Ireland have urged the public to work from home where possible while warning pubs may be forced to close over Christmas in the face of surging Covid infection rates.
Showing a united front in a rare joint press conference appearance outside Stormont Castle on Tuesday, First Minister Paul Givan, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Health Minister Robin Swann all insisted that such a scenario could be avoided if people followed a range of steps agreed by the Executive.
These include encouraging the public to reduce social contacts; meet outdoors where possible; make sure indoor meeting places are well ventilated; wear face coverings in crowded or indoor settings; and continue to wash hands or use sanitiser.
The press conference followed a meeting of the five-party coalition, and a warning from Mr Swann on Monday that some hospitality outlets may be forced to close over the festive period if the current wave of cases is not suppressed.
Mr Givan said the coalition wanted to protect both ‘lives and livelihoods’.
‘We are working on the basis of having things open and safe,’ he said.
Northern Ireland Minister of Health Robin Swann (centre) speaks during a press conference at Stormont Castle, as he gave an update from the Northern Ireland Executive on new Covid measures as Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left) and First Minister Paul Givan (right) look on
Ms O’Neill (pictured) asked for the public to play their part in keeping society open
‘We’re not working on the basis of wanting to close down things. I want our hospitality to be open right through our Christmas period.
‘I want to have people being able to open and to do so safely.
‘There’s also a financial reality that there isn’t the furlough scheme, there isn’t the hundreds of millions coming from London that we were able to provide in that kind of financial support.’
Ms O’Neill asked for the public to play their part in keeping society open.
‘So clearly this is a moment to reset things and really refocus on where we are,’ she said.
‘These certainly are uncertain times. But now’s the time for action and if we want to achieve the best possible outcome right now, then now is the time to act.
‘And this is our best chance actually at avoiding further instructions down the line.’
Ms O’Neill added: ‘Our objective is to keep everybody open and safe and to keep businesses operating safely that patrons can attend.
‘That’s what we’re trying to do today.’
Mr Swann said the closure of hospitality outlets at Christmas was ‘not inevitable’.
He said increased uptake in vaccination and more adherence to public health measures could help avoid the need for such restrictions.
Mr Swann warned on Monday that some hospitality outlets may be forced to close over the festive period if the current wave of cases is not suppressed
The minister said the proposals agreed by the Executive were aimed at preventing soaring numbers of Covid cases experienced in other parts of Europe.
‘The time is now to take these actions so that in future we don’t have to take any further action and that is what the Executive has agreed collectively,’ he said.
It comes after some have criticised the re-opening of nightclubs and the scrapping of social distancing rules on October 31.
The move came despite the British Medical Association warning of easing restrictions at a time when community transmission of coronavirus remained high and pressures on the health service continued to mount.
Just over three weeks on, Stormont ministers are grappling with soaring case numbers.
Mr Givan defended the decisions on Tuesday, saying: ‘The measures that were taken by the Executive, I believe, were the right measures.
‘And we have retained a number of key baseline requirements like carrying out risk assessments to ensure that events that happen are done so in a safe manner that minimises the risk of transmission.
‘This is about making sure that there is greater adherence to those measures that are still here.’
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it was not the time to look back on past decisions.
‘There’ll be plenty of time for reflection around decisions and decision points and what informed those decisions,’ she said.
‘For now, I’m more focused on what we’re doing today. We’ve tried to work with society, with the different sectors, we’re trying to get people open and safe, we’ve tried voluntary approaches and, unfortunately, then we find ourselves in the scenario that we are in today.
‘But I think that all of our energy and all of our focus has to be on how we get through the next number of weeks and into the new year.’
The Executive has ordered its Covid task force to work with sectors and agencies on issues around patchy enforcement of mask-wearing rules.
The task force, led by Stormont’s junior ministers, will also look at the potential of setting up a scores-on-the-doors type system to rate businesses on their compliance with rules and mitigations.
The decisions announced on Tuesday came after a period marked by disagreements among various ministers on key Covid policy issues.
The DUP voted against Mr Swann’s plan for a Covid certification scheme for the hospitality sector while the UUP Health Minister also found himself at odds with Alliance Justice Minister Naomi Long on how to address low compliance rates with face mask wearing.
At the joint press conference outside Stormont Castle, Mr Givan, Ms O’Neill and Mr Swann all acknowledged there were differences of opinion within the Executive, but they said they were all determined to deliver a collective message on the latest actions agreed.
The three ministers also spoke of the need for systemic reform of the region’s under pressure health service and stressed a united approach within the Executive to prioritise the system going forward, including in the upcoming budget plan.
Mr Givan said Christmas party planning should continue, but stressed the need for organisers to carry out risk assessments.
‘Obviously I want things to be able to continue to go ahead and people make plans and arrangements but to do that in a safe way,’ he said.
The First Minister said the ‘single most impactful contribution’ that people could make is to receive the vaccine and the subsequent boosters.
The Covid certification system for hospitality businesses is being rolled out next week.
Fines for non-compliance will be become enforceable two weeks after that on December 13.
Under the compulsory certification scheme, people wishing to gain entry to designated venues would need to demonstrate evidence of Covid-19 vaccination, a negative lateral flow test result, or proof of a coronavirus infection within the previous six months.
The deaths of a further four patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were reported on Tuesday along with another 1,476 positive cases of the virus.
On Tuesday morning, there were 390 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 33 in intensive care.