Changes to Covid regulations in England described as ‘reckless’ by O’Neill

NI Executive to consider restrictions but will not follow ‘Johnson model’

Michelle O’Neill alongside local resident Terence Sharp during a visit to the interface area in west Belfast on Tuesday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Michelle O’Neill alongside local resident Terence Sharp during a visit to the interface area in west Belfast on Tuesday. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Northern Ireland will “not be following the Boris Johnson model” and is not in a position to remove rules on face masks or social distancing, the North’s Deputy First Minister has said.

Michelle O’Neill also described the changes set to come into force in England on July 19th as “reckless”.

England is due to lift the majority of its remaining Covid-19 restrictions, which will include ending social distancing and making it voluntary rather than compulsory to wear a face mask indoors.

Ministers in the Northern Executive are due to meet on Thursday to consider the Covid-19 rules in force in Northern Ireland and what measures might be relaxed, but they are not expected to make any changes to the rules on social distancing or face masks.

The North’s Department of Health said on Tuesday that the Executive was currently carrying out a review of Northern Ireland’s current position on the Pathway out of Restrictions roadmap.

“At this week’s Executive meeting the sequencing of further relaxations and the process by which we hope to move forward over the summer will be considered, in line with the most up-to-date data,” a spokeswoman said.

An additional 417 cases of Covid-19 were reported in Northern Ireland in the last 24 hours, the North’s Department of Health said on Tuesday. There were no further deaths.

A total of 37 people are receiving hospital treatment in the North for Covid-19, with five in intensive care.

Asked by reporters if a similar approach to that in England would be considered in the North, Ms O’Neill said Northern Ireland had a locally elected Executive which “must take our own decisions in the people’s best interests here”.

Discussions

“We will have some discussions over today and tomorrow in advance of Thursday’s Executive, we will set out a programme of how we can remove some restrictions,” she said, but added that “we are still in a space where we need to be very careful”.

“The Health Minister has made it very clear we are not in a position where we are able to remove face masks; I would support that.

“It is a case of trying to make steady progress, coming out of the restrictions as best we can, but I am not prepared to go to the end of the line yet because that is not where we are.”

The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he would “certainly encourage people to continue wearing their face masks and abiding by the social distancing” until rules changed.

“Obviously in Northern Ireland the Executive will meet, there is a paper to be brought forward by our Minister for Health which will make further recommendations about easing the restrictions, we will need to look at where we are with the spread of the virus in Northern Ireland.”

He said he thought it was “right we move eventually to a situation where it is a voluntary decision by each individual” but acknowledged there would be many people who would still want to wear face masks.

The North’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Ian Young, told the BBC that Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK which had a “border with another country where the vaccination rate is significantly lower and that’s something that needs to be factored into decision-making in Northern Ireland.”

On Tuesday, the North’s Minister for Health, Robin Swann, warned that hospital emergency departments were under severe strain and the health and social care system as a whole was “struggling to cope” with current demands for care.

This was the result of a number of “interlinked” factors, he said, which included the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic and the requirements for treatment for conditions which have developed during lockdown.

He also said he was “deeply concerned at reports of aggressive and abusive behaviour towards some staff.”

According to the Department’s Covid-19 dashboard the North’s hospitals were at 104 per cent capacity on Tuesday.