Multiple Covid restrictions to be lifted in Northern Ireland in 'welcome step forward'
The dropping of a requirement for Covid certification to enter some hospitality venues and the reopening of nightclubs across the north have been agreed by the Stormont Executive.
From Friday, the requirement to remain seated and the limit of six per table at hospitality venues will be removed.
The move has been greeted by First Minister Paul Givan, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, other political parties and Hospitality Ulster as a “welcome step forward”.
Ms O’Neill and Health Minister Robin Swann sounded a note of caution and urged the continued following of guidance and vaccination.
Ministers also agreed that the cap on the number of households meeting inside domestic settings will be removed from the same date.
The requirement to provide proof of exemption from wearing face coverings will also be removed from Friday, and the guidance on working from home will revert to working from home where you can.
The Executive also agreed that nightclubs will be permitted to open from noon on Wednesday January 26.
From the same date, dancing and indoor standing events can resume, and in workplaces the requirement for offices to take reasonable measures for two-metre social distancing will also be removed.
The legal requirement for Covid certification will continue in nightclubs, and indoor unseated or partially-seated events with 500 people or more.
For other settings the certification will no longer be required but its use encouraged.
Remaining Covid restrictions in Northern Ireland will be reviewed by the Stormont Executive on February 10.
These include the legal duty on retail to take reasonable measures to reduce the risk of transmission, the legal requirement to wear face coverings and the legal requirement for risk assessments in prescribed settings.
Meanwhile from Friday the required self-isolation period following a positive Covid test will be reduced.
Positive cases will be able to leave isolation on day six providing they have had two negative lateral flow tests, at least 24 hours apart, no earlier than day five and day six.
Mr Givan and Ms O’Neill chaired the virtual meeting of the Executive during a trip to Derry on Thursday.
Mr Givan said he was delighted at the consensus within the Executive over the relaxation of restrictions.
He said there had been “very welcome progress” and described the Executive’s meeting on February 10 as an “important meeting for those outstanding measures that are still in place”.
“Until that point, if changes are to be made, I encourage people to follow the regulations and listen to that public health advice,” he said.
“But I think the public will be pleased with these decisions that we’ve been able to take.
“It’s proportionate, it reflects the changing circumstances that we have in respect of Covid, and it is a step in the right direction, and hopefully we will continue to make progress at our meeting on February 10.”
Ms O’Neill also welcomed the move but urged continued caution.
She said Northern Ireland has passed the peak of Omicron cases.
“There was probably 18,000 cases per day at a point over the last number of weeks, we have had very high levels of cases, but we are past that peak in terms of both case numbers but also, crucially, hospital admissions, and I think that’s an important factor,” she said.
“All of our decisions today are based on the best scientific and medical advice that we have, so I’m glad that we’ve been able to make this progress, but again I would just like to strike that note of caution.”
Health Minister Robin Swann urged cautious optimism.
He paid tribute to co-operation from the public and the vaccination programme for bringing the region to this point.
“Cautious optimism will serve us best as we look towards a better future,” he said.
“There are still major uncertainties with this pandemic including the potential for a secondary peak in the coming days and weeks.
“We must stick to the approach that has produced dividends. That includes ongoing efforts to get more people boosted and vaccinated.”
He added: “We must remain ready for all eventualities, while planning for further easing of restrictions just as soon as the situation allows.”
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.
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 of coronavirus.
Ministers also imposed fresh measures on the rest of the hospitality sector, including table service and a ban on dancing.
The agreed relaxations are expected to be part of a phased approach to the lifting of remaining Covid restrictions in the region.
The deaths of a further two people who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 and another 3,879 cases of the virus were notified by the Department of Health on Thursday.
On Thursday there were 402 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 24 in intensive care.
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