Covid-19: Call for people in North to adhere to health advice as restrictions eased

Close contact services and outdoor attractions to reopen from Friday after months of closure

Health authorities in the North have warned that people must continue to stick to the Covid-19 rules to avoid further lockdowns ahead of the relaxation of some restrictions on Friday.

Close-contact services and outdoor visitor attractions are due to reopen for the first time since Christmas and driving lessons and tests can resume, as can squad training for recognised clubs and competitive outdoor sport for up to 100 participants.

The changes come into force ahead of a broader reopening of society from next Friday, when outdoor hospitality and all retail will reopen, and the number of people allowed to gather outdoors will increase.

The Director of Public Health at the Public Health Agency, Dr Stephen Bergin, said it was important not to move beyond what is permitted in the guidelines at any given time.

“The phasing has been designed to ease us out of lockdown, but as we saw last autumn, cases can escalate very quickly, over just a few weeks, so we need everyone to work within what the Executive is allowing so it can be sustained,” he said.

While the opportunities for more normality were a “positive”, he said, they “could very quickly become a negative again if we put ourselves and others at risk by forgetting about the key steps to help stay safe.

“The last thing we want is to see restrictions being reintroduced, so it is important that every one of us does what we can to avoid that,” he said.

The North’s First and Deputy First Ministers praised the public for following the rules, saying it was down to their efforts and the success of the vaccination programme that the transmission of Covid-19 had been reduced sufficiently to allow society to reopen.

Quicker exit

Arlene Foster told reporters she could not rule out being able to move quicker out of lockdown, saying that "we have to see what the impact is of relaxations and then make an assessment as to whether we can move dates forward.

“But I have to say people have reacted very well to the announcement last Thursday and I hope that we can step through this, yes in a careful way, but in a way that brings back joy to people.”

The deaths of three more people with Covid-19 were reported in the North on Thursday, bringing the death toll recorded by the Northern Ireland Department of Health to 2,140.

An additional 120 people tested positive for the virus. A total of 62 people are currently receiving treatment for Covid-19 in hospitals, with seven in intensive care.

In a speech to the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, Taoiseach acknowledged the difference in the pace of the vaccination programmes and the earlier easing of restrictions in the North.

“I’m not going to pretend it hasn’t been challenging to have absolute alignment” North and South, Micheál Martin said, adding that but the authorities in both jurisdictions engaged on a regular basis and “keep each other informed”.

“I don’t see perfect alignment or anything like that in the next number of weeks, I think there will be some gaps in that perspective...but we are moving at pace now and I think both North and South can look forward to reopening in a cautious and phased way of restrictions as long as the numbers keep where they are at the moment, and the vaccination continues to roll out,” he said.

Ms Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill called on Thursday for a speedy resolution to the long-running difficulties over the cross-border sharing of passenger data.

Data sharing

Minister for Health Robin Swann told a Stormont scrutiny committee that he was still concerned the authorities in the North were not receiving the full data from passenger locator forms filled out by international travellers arriving into the Republic. He also said he had learned of the presence of the Indian variant of Covid-19 through the media.

An interim solution is in place which advises passengers by text message that they must fill in a UK version of the form if travelling on to the North.

Mr Swann said that “on a professional level there’s very good engagement through CMOs (chief medical officers), public health agencies, even the officials” but “when it comes to some of the decision making and communications at certain levels, I think that’s where the challenge starts to come in as well, because there’s discussions at a political level and decisions that have to be made in different governments as to how those are taken forward”.

Ms Foster said the reason now cited by the authorities in Ireland was “IT difficulties”, adding, “there have been many reasons given along the way and we just want to see the political will to get it sorted.”

The Northern Minister's comments were later raised in the Dáil by Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane during a question session with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

“We have a Minister for Health in the North who is saying that even at this point, at an official level it’s working, but specifically said at Government level and at ministerial and decision-making level, it’s not happening. That’s a concern to me.”

Closer the better

Mr Donnelly responded: “For reasons we all understand we take North-South co-operation very seriously, and no more so on this issue because the closer we can have to an all-island approach the better.

“I will have to see Minister Swann’s comments myself,” he said. “But what I can say is that there is a very good constructive ongoing relationship. We recently held a health sectoral meeting. We are co-operating on data-sharing, on Covid.

“It would not be normal for me to directly contact Minister Swann about the identification of variants any more than he contact me about specific variants found in Northern Ireland.

“There is very close ongoing co-operation between the chief medical officers. The more co-operation we can have, the better.” - Additional reporting - PA.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times