Northern Ireland ministers have urged the public to adjust their approach to Covid-19 rules after supporting work from home amid rising infection rates.
The powersharing manager in Belfast also agreed on a number of additional steps aimed at improving compliance with existing Covid-19 restrictions and advice.
After a five-party coalition meeting, First Minister Paul Givan and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill emphasized their determination to keep shops open over Christmas.
Their comments came after a warning from Health Secretary Robin Swann on Monday that some eateries may have to close during the holiday season if the current wave of coronavirus cases is not suppressed.
At a rare joint press conference suggesting a desire to present a united front, Mr. Givan, Ms. O’Neill and Mr. Swann all insisted that the scenario could be averted if people followed the steps agreed by the executive.
People are encouraged to work from home whenever possible.
This has been Stormont’s previous advice, but companies have also been urged to prepare for a gradual return to the office.
These guidelines have now been revised and employers are encouraged to assist employees who wish to work from home wherever possible.
However, a proposal from Mr Swann that would have resulted in ministers asking people who were working from home when the pandemic started in March 2020 to do so again was not adopted.
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The PA news agency believes that some ministers had raised concerns that advice could cause confusion, as many sectors that closed in March 2020 are now open and as a result their staff do not have the option to stay at home.
Much of the plan agreed by ministers focuses on reinforcing the messages on public health measures such as the wearing of face masks, hand hygiene and social restrictions.
The executive branch has also instructed its Covid task force to work with sectors and authorities on issues relating to the incomplete enforcement of mask wearing rules.
The task force, led by Stormont’s junior ministers, will also look into the possibility of establishing an on-the-door type system to score companies for compliance and attenuation.
The executive said it was important that people make safer decisions.
The ministers urged people to reduce their social contacts; if possible, meet outdoors; Make sure the indoor meeting places are well ventilated; wear face coverings in crowded or indoors; and continue to wash hands or use disinfectant.
Givan said the coalition wants to protect “life and livelihoods”.
“We work on the basis that things are open and safe,” he said.
“We don’t work on the basis of wanting to close things. I want our hospitality to be open until Christmas time. I want people to be able to open up and do it safely.
“There is also a financial reality that there is no vacation program, there are not the hundreds of millions coming from London that we have been able to provide in this type of financial assistance.”
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Ms. O’Neill urged the public to do their part to keep society open.
“So this is clearly a moment to put things back and really focus back on where we are,” she said.
“These are certainly uncertain times. But now is the time to act, and if we want to get the best possible result now, now is the time to act.
“And this is our best chance to avoid further instructions down the line.”
Ms. O’Neill added, “Our goal is to keep everyone open and safe, and to do business safely so that guests can attend. That is what we are trying to do today.”
Swann said hospitality closings for Christmas “are not inevitable”.
He said that increased vaccination adoption and compliance with public health measures could help avoid the need for such restrictions.
The minister said the proposals agreed by the executive aim to prevent the rising number of Covid cases in other parts of Europe.
“Now is the time to take these steps so that we don’t have to take any further action in the future, and that is what the executive collectively agreed,” he said.
The decisions were made after a period of disagreement between various ministers on important issues relating to Covid policy.
The DUP voted against Mr Swann’s plan for a Covid certification scheme for the hospitality industry, while the UUP Health Minister also disagreed with Alliance Justice Minister Naomi Long on how to address low compliance rates for wearing face masks.
At the joint press conference outside Stormont Castle, Mr Givan, Ms O’Neill and Mr Swann admitted all disagreements within the executive but said they were all determined to get a common message across on the action recently agreed.
The three ministers also all spoke of the need for systemic reform of the region’s pressurized health service and stressed a unified approach within the executive branch to prioritize the system in the future, including in the upcoming budget.
Mr Givan said the planning of the Christmas party should continue but stressed the need for organizers to conduct risk assessments.
“Of course I want things to keep moving forward and people to make plans and arrangements, but in a safe way,” he said.
The First Minister said the “only most powerful contribution” people could make is to receive the vaccine and then get a booster.
The hospitality industry’s Covid certification system will be rolled out next week. Fines for non-compliance will become enforceable two weeks later on December 13th.
As part of the mandatory certification system, people who want access to certain locations must provide evidence of a Covid-19 vaccination, a negative result of the lateral flow test or evidence of coronavirus infection within the last six months.
The deaths of four other patients who previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were reported today, along with an additional 1,476 positive cases of the virus.
This morning, 390 Covid-positive patients were in the hospital, 33 of them in the intensive care unit.