Stormont ministers agree no changes to Covid rules but signpost ‘significant date’ for easing rules

Stormont ministers have made no changes to current Covid rules in Northern Ireland but have agreed a date when some regulations could be eased.

Following a marathon meeting of the Executive (pictured), First Minister Paul Givan said ministers were looking towards October 14 as a “significant date” but added that this would be subject to final decisions made the week before.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it was too early to say they were looking at any date as an “endpoint”.

Remaining restrictions in Northern Ireland include social distancing and mask wearing in some indoor hospitality and retail settings.

Ministers held their first face-to-face meeting in almost a year on Thursday, where they received advice from health officials suggesting current regulations and guidance should not be eased.

While ministers made no changes to rules within Northern Ireland, they did take a decision on international travel, removing the requirement for pre-departure testing for fully vaccinated arrivals from non-red list countries from October 4.

Mr Givan said they would meet again next week to discuss the easing of social distancing measures in certain sectors.

He said: “We have obviously made huge progress as an Executive over the past number of months. We have had over 38 relaxations and we are able to do a lot of things we weren’t able to do previously, and we now are left with a remaining nine areas that need to be considered.

“I am pleased that today, on a number of those, we were able to make progress and we’re looking towards October 14 as a significant date, subject to a final decision being made on October 7.”

He added: “Over the past 10 days we’ve had a 25% reduction of hospital admissions.

“In terms of the models that we’re following as an Executive, we are on a trajectory around the optimistic model both in respect of community transmission and hospitalisation.”

Ms O’Neill said the meeting took place against the backdrop of the two first ministers talking with healthcare staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital this week.

She said: “The message was very clear from the healthcare staff that they were crying out for help and asking for Executive support, so I think today’s approach was always going to be cautious, was always going to be prudent and I think that is what we have achieved.

“We looked at the current restrictions, they are going to remain, that will not change before October 14, but that will be reviewed on the October 7.

“That meeting will be quite a detailed meeting because we want to talk about the Covid surge plan and preparations for autumn and winter.

“So the work is under way and will continue over the course of the next two weeks between health and the task force around developing those plans.

“That is the approach today, it is a cautious approach and a prudent approach, but in my opinion the right approach.”

Asked if October 14 was now a firm date for restrictions to be lifted, Mr Givan said: “There are a number of regulations that we’re looking towards October 14, subject to that meeting on October 7.

“I think it is important people are aware of those that we are looking at around domestic settings, for example how many people can be in your own property, and whenever it comes for the requirement for food and drink to be consumed in a seated position, to remain seated for indoor events where there is music in order to facilitate dancing.”

Ms O’Neill said: “I think it is too early to say we are looking at a date in terms of an endpoint because there are still a number of uncertainties. We don’t have that information to make that decision at this point.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has called for vaccine passports to be used in Northern Ireland as a stipulation for permitting people to enter indoor venues, an idea which has been resisted by the hospitality industry.

Mr Givan said: “We continue to have concerns in respect of the merits of a scheme like this because of the implications around equality of access. I also want to get the evidence as to would this work and would it get the desired outcome. I would want to get the evidence base to inform a decision that we would take.”

Ms O’Neill added: “It is very much on the table and I’m very open-minded in terms of using it if it is the right thing to do and it gets us the desired outcome.”

During the meeting, ministers received an Executive Office paper from health officials which recommended that no changes should be made to current rules.

Reacting to the announcement on Thursday, the chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, Colin Neil, said his industry was “hugely disappointed” with the outcome of the meeting.

“We cannot have another Thursday when our industry is waiting in hope for their opportunity to push past the restrictions and begin to rebuild and recover.

“Christmas is fast approaching, yet focus is on whether we will even be able to trade properly during the festive period,” he said.

The nine areas still covered by regulations or guidance are:

  • Domestic setting restrictions
  • A ban on large house parties and indoor raves
  • Working from home messaging
  • The need to be seated to consume food and drink in a hospitality setting
  • The need to be seated at indoor music events and the ban on dancing
  • The requirement to wear face coverings in indoor areas such as retail and public transport
  • Social distancing indoors
  • The need to carry out risk assessments to stage events
  • The requirement to take contact details in certain settings.

Meanwhile, eight further deaths of patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 have been reported in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Health said there had also been 1,165 new confirmed cases in the last 24-hour reporting period.

On Thursday morning there were 383 Covid-19 patients in hospital, with 31 in intensive care.

A total of 2,511,208 vaccines have been administered in the region.

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