Northern Ireland is not expected to face another Covid-19 lockdown this winter, finance minister Conor Murphy has said.
The Sinn Féin MLA said it was an “uncertain time” in terms of the spread of the disease and that a cautious approach to the pandemic was still required.
Speaking ahead of the latest planned easing of restrictons from this weekend, he said the economic impact of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland has not transpired to be as severe as once feared.
Nightclubs in the North can reopen from Sunday and social distancing rules that have limited capacity in pubs and restaurants will end.
The British Medical Association has criticised the decision to ease restrictions at a time when community transmission remains high and pressures on the health service continue to mount.
Mr Murphy said he does not believe Northern Ireland is at risk of another period of lockdown. “I don’t expect that we will end up in another lockdown,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“And certainly any of our discussions at Executive level have not pointed in that direction. I think we were right to be cautious where others wanted further restrictions removed in a quicker move into ending restrictions.
“It’s an uncertain time in terms of the virus and we’ve seen increases in the south as well as in Britain and here as well.”
From Sunday, people will again be able to move freely around and dance in hospitality premises, including being able to stand at the bar for a drink.
Ministers have decided that people attending nightclubs do not have to wear masks when dancing or in settings that involve eating or drinking.
Mr Murphy was asked whether relaxing face covering rules for one sector while they remain mandatory in other settings could dilute the public message.
He said the Executive had tried to avoid a “blanket approach” to restrictions but he acknowledged different approaches for different sectors had the potential to create “contradictions and confusions”.
“That’s always been a balancing act from the moment this pandemic began and the moment we began to ease restrictions,” he said. “We recognise that there will always be grey areas in the middle of all of that, but I think generally society has been moving in the right direction.”
Ahead of Sunday’s relaxations, the Executive has advised hospitality venues to introduce their own entry checks to establish proof of vaccination or Covid status. But the administration has stopped short of bringing in a mandatory passport system similar to the one operating in the Republic.
The issue has divided ministers, with the SDLP and Alliance Party calling for legally enforceable Covid passports for nightlife venues.
Work is continuing on developing an official certification system for Northern Ireland but DUP First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill have insisted they do not want to compel the sector to enforce mandatory checks at this point, preferring a “partnership approach”. – PA