Proposal to link NI voucher scheme to vaccine take-up criticised

About £145m has been allocated for the £100 voucher High Street Stimulus Scheme

Minister for Health Robin Swann on Tuesday suggested that eligibility for the scheme could be restricted to those who are fully vaccinated. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/PA Wire

Minister for Health Robin Swann on Tuesday suggested that eligibility for the scheme could be restricted to those who are fully vaccinated. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/PA Wire

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Stormont Ministers are in dispute over whether shopping vouchers should be used to encourage people to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

Former economy minister Diane Dodds announced in April that every adult in the North would be eligible to receive a £100 pre-paid voucher card to be spent in shops to boost the North’s economy as restrictions were rolled back.

About £145 million has been allocated for the High Street Stimulus Scheme, which will benefit 1.4 million people.

Minister for Health Robin Swann on Tuesday suggested that eligibility for the scheme could be restricted to those who are fully vaccinated.

“It is something I will have the discussion about and raise with the Executive committee certainly, in regards to an incentive for people to come forward and get vaccinated,” he told BBC’s The Nolan show.

“But it would also have to be retrospective because I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone who has already been vaccinated.”

However, Gordon Lyons, who replaced Ms Dodds as Minister for the Economy in a recent reshuffle, has rejected the proposal.

“Such a suggestion would create unnecessary bureaucracy, throw up a range of legal issues and could ultimately jeopardise the entire scheme,” a spokesman for his department said.

He said “every person in Northern Ireland aged 18 and over will be eligible to apply for a pre-paid card worth £100 to spend in supporting local businesses”.

The scheme, which has not yet opened, is for over-18s and vouchers cannot be used for online shopping.

Rising admissions

About 70 per cent of the adult population in the North is now fully vaccinated, but hospitals are struggling with rising Covid-19 admissions in the latest wave. The Belfast Trust has said that six in 10 of those requiring hospital treatment for the disease have not been vaccinated.

Concerns were raised over the weekend that just 56 per cent of under-30s had been inoculated, with the mass vaccination programme set to wind down over the coming weeks.

Despite the pressures, Roger Pollen, head of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, said “hijacking” the voucher scheme as a vaccine incentive would be wrong.He said doing so would be likely to involve a time-consuming merger of databases across the health and economy departments at the “11th hour”.

Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, said Mr Swann was “wrong” to link the voucher scheme to vaccinations.“It’s not about vaccine take-up and should not be linked in this confusing way.”

Three more deaths linked to Covid-19 were reported in the North on Tuesday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 2,173, as well as a further 1,473 cases of the disease.

A total of 243 people were being treated in hospital for Covid 19, up 17 per cent on Monday’s figure, with 29 in intensive care.

Mr Swann said further take-up in the vaccination programme would make a “decisive difference” in preventing more hospitalisations and serious illness.

He said health trusts, which have appealed to off-duty staff to report to work, were “beginning to see the pressures mounting” in the North’s hospitals, with increasing demand for intensive care beds.