Ministers in the North are to ask the Irish and British governments to convene a summit of the British-Irish Council to address inconsistencies around the Common Travel Area in the coronavirus regulations in the different jurisdictions.
Speaking following a meeting of the North’s Executive on Thursday, the Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, said the current situation was a “very confusing picture” and there were “a lot of anomalies that need to be resolved”.
She said she and the First Minister, Arlene Foster, had agreed to write to the two governments requesting the summit, adding that it would be an opportunity to "have that conversation about travel across these islands . . . among the five administrations" and to "find a commonsense way forward".
However, Ms Foster again ruled out any question that the North might diverge from its current position, telling the BBC "what has caused the difficulty has been that the Republic of Ireland has decided to opt out of the Common Travel Area".
It was “very clear”, she said, “that the Common Travel Area should be respected . . . and that will continue”.
The UK has imposed no coronavirus-related restrictions on movement within the Common Travel Area – which covers the UK, Ireland, Channel Islands and Isle of Man – but anyone arriving into the Republic from Britain must self-isolate for two weeks. There is no restriction on movement within the island of Ireland.
The instructions on international travel to and from the UK are also less stringent than those in the Republic, with non-essential travel permitted to about 60 countries and the requirement for self-isolation lifted.
Meanwhile, the wearing of face coverings in shops and other enclosed spaces in Northern Ireland will be mandatory from August 1st, but compliance will not be enforced for the first three weeks.
The North's health minister, Robin Swann, said the evidence in support of the measure had become "increasingly compelling" and it should "become second nature to us in the weeks and months ahead".
The Executive also agreed on Thursday to the further easing of some of the coronavirus restrictions, which will come into effect from July 24th. The maximum number of people who can meet indoors will increase from six to 10, and people can now stay overnight in a different house. Swimming pools, community centres, funfairs and bowling alleys will reopen, and wet treatments in spas such as saunas and steam rooms will be permitted to resume.
An indicative date for the reopening of indoor pubs and bars selling drinks only was set at August 10th.
Meanwhile, the North’s coronavirus tracing app will be launched next week, possibly as early as July 29th. Called Stop Covid NI, it was designed by the same company that was responsible for the app in the Republic, and will share data with the Irish app and across the Common Travel Area.
On Thursday, Northern Ireland's Department of Health again reported no coronavirus-related deaths, leaving the number of fatalities recorded by the department at 556. Eight further cases of Covid-19 were confirmed. A cluster of cases has been identified at a meat processing plant in Ballymena, Co Antrim.