Stormont increases Covid fines and extends rules around where masks must be worn

The Northern Ireland public face beefed-up coronavirus fines, with fixed penalty notices starting at £200.

The list of locations where people must wear a face covering has also been extended as Stormont ministers try to stem a dramatic surge of Covid cases.

Some 4,674 new cases of the virus have been confirmed in the region in the last week, while 120 people with Covid-19 are being cared for in hospital, 15 of which are in intensive care, and 11 on ventilators.

First Minister Arlene Foster warned the situation is “grave and serious”.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said if the current rate continues, the number of people in hospitals will exceed the first wave in just two to three weeks’ time.

“We now have a very narrow window to get on top of the situation,” she said.

The leaders stressed that they will need further money from the Treasury to support people and businesses before considering harsher restrictions.

Mrs Foster said they have requested a phone call with Prime Minister Boris Johnson to discuss the situation in Northern Ireland.

The Derry and Strabane council area currently has the highest infection rate in the UK.

The First Minister explained the rise in cases across Northern Ireland as people becoming too “relaxed” about Covid-19.

“We had a summer where the virus was at a low ebb and people were coming together, and there were no consequences as a result of that,” she said.

“But unfortunately the virus has started to grow again and people are still coming together in large numbers, they’re not socially distancing, they are not taking the very basic precautions and as a result of that unfortunately we find ourselves in this position.”

However, Mrs Foster (pictured) said it is “not irreversible”, and to take “basic steps to stop the transmission of the virus”.

At Thursday’s Executive meeting, ministers agreed to replace the £60 fixed penalty notice which could increase on each detection, with a single tariff of £200.

Three other offences will be punishable on conviction by a fine of up to £10,000, or attract a fixed penalty notice starting at £1,000 and going up to maximum of £10,000.

The first of these is not closing a business as required under the regulations.

Two other new offences are being introduced – breaching the early closing requirements for hospitality and not implementing measures to maintain social distancing.

Mrs Foster said Justice Minister Naomi Long and the Executive are also considering an offence relating to organising a large gathering, or an unlicensed event as applies in England and Wales.

Meanwhile locations where a mask must be worn have been expanded.

In addition to on public transport and in shops, masks must be worn when boarding a plane, in taxis and private buses, visiting government offices such as benefit offices, banks and building societies, and for both driving instructors and their clients.

Mrs Foster said she would encourage people to wear face coverings in any setting where social distancing is not possible.

No further local lockdowns were announced on Thursday.

The Derry City and Strabane Council area is currently subject to additional restrictions.

However the growth in rates in Newry, Mourne and Down as well as Belfast which had been highlighted for concern, have been “blunted”.

“Unlike the north west, the rate of the infection is not running as hard and as fast as it was in that area,” Mrs Foster said.

Ms O’Neill said the situation will be kept under review but said they were told and shown evidence the “curve of the infection is starting to stabilise, particularly in Newry, Mourne and Down”.

“That is down to the actions of people over the last numbers of weeks,” she said.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2020, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Kevin Boyes / Press Eye / PA Wire.