Swann urges Executive to agree policy on Covid cert system

Social distancing requirement to end in Northern Ireland’s shops and theatres

Stormont ministers decided to remove the one-metre distance requirement for the retail sector, indoor attractions and seated indoor venues. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Stormont ministers decided to remove the one-metre distance requirement for the retail sector, indoor attractions and seated indoor venues. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Northern Ireland’s Minister of Health Robin Swann has said he wants a domestic Covid-19 vaccine certification scheme in place “as soon as necessary”.

Mr Swann said it was “regrettable” that the Executive had yet to agree a policy position on so-called vaccine passports.

On Monday, Stormont Ministers agreed a plan to drop the one-metre social distancing requirement across a range of venues, but decided that mitigation measures requiring proof of vaccine for entry to indoor seated venues would be advisory only.

The one-metre distance requirement for the retail sector and seated indoor venues such as theatres and cinemas will be removed. Face coverings will remain mandatory. Ministers also agreed to beef up guidance to business and venue owners to mitigate the impact of allowing a return to full capacity.

The advice includes the installation of screening, one-way systems and increased ventilation. The measures are to take effect from 6pm on Thursday. Further consideration is to be given to the hospitality sector on October 7th.

At the meeting on Monday, SDLP Minister Nichola Mallon proposed Covid vaccine passports for those venues should be compulsory and introduced by way of legal regulation.

While the proposal was backed by Alliance leader Naomi Long, it was voted down by the other Executive Ministers, including Mr Swann.

Those Ministers instead voted to issue guidance to the venues, which include theatres and indoor concert venues, recommending the use of proof of vaccine as one entry requirement.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood branded the decision as “astounding and reckless”.

In response, Sinn Féin Minister Conor Murphy accused other parties of playing politics.

Mr Swann said he did not back the proposal to make passports mandatory for indoor seated venues because such a scheme was “neither agreed nor ready”.

He said the Executive would have been “ridiculed” if it had told businesses fearful about the end of the furlough scheme that Ministers had decided to mandate a vaccine passport system that was not ready to use.

The issue is set to come to a head again next week when Ministers consider whether to remove the one-metre social distancing requirement for hospitality venues.

The DUP has consistently voiced concern about any move to introduce vaccine passports, citing potential human rights and equality issues.

It has also emerged that Mr Swann wrote to all Ministers on Saturday expressing frustration that the Executive Office’s Covid-19 taskforce had still not produced a policy paper on the issue, five months after he asked for the work to be done.

In the letter, seen by the PA news agency, Mr Swann wrote: “I would ask as a matter of urgency that the TEO [the Executive Office] paper on domestic use certification be brought to the Executive without further delay.”

In a statement on Tuesday, the Minister added: “I want a domestic vaccine certification scheme to be in place, on the books, available for use as soon as necessary.

“It is regrettable that the Executive has yet to agree a policy position on this. I wrote to Executive Ministers as far back as April 22nd asking for this matter to be taken forward by TEO through the creation of a cross-departmental working group.

“We have waited for the Covid Task Force to pick up the ball and run with this. It is central to the taskforce’s entire purpose – charting a pathway out of restrictions.

“It is important to note that the parties that have been most vocal in recent days advocating for the introduction of domestic use certification had until then also shown no actual interest in helping me to pursue a policy decision.

“How that tallies with their public pronouncements of recent days is a matter for them to explain.”

Following Monday night’s disagreement at the Executive, Mr Murphy suggested the looming Assembly election was a reason consensus was not reached during the meeting.

The Sinn Féin MLA insisted his party had “no ideological issue” with using vaccine certification as a requirement of entry into certain venues.

He said, though, more work was still needed to get a system ready to be rolled out if it was needed.

“One of the key issues is unanimity in the coherence of the public message and making sure the public understand what we’re continuing to ask them to do, and I’m sorry and regret that that was not possible coming out of the Executive last night,” he told a Stormont press conference.

“We shouldn’t have an issue where the health minister feels he has to come out and defend decisions because other parties have come and attacked the advice that was given by his department last night – that’s not where we need to be.

“I do recognise there’s an election on the horizon and I do recognise that parties want to carve out their own space, but the pandemic is too important an issue to play politics.”

In his statement on Tuesday, Mr Swann said a passport system could be voluntary in the first instance with the option to make it mandatory if that was necessary.

“If we can get a domestic scheme agreed – with the necessary regulations and technology in place – it gives us both options and opportunities, new tools to use if required,” he said.

“It also means our citizens won’t be disadvantaged when they travel to jurisdictions where certification is mandatory – be that going for a drink in Donegal or a football match in Scotland.

“There will still be decisions to make on if or when or where vaccine certification would be mandatory in Northern Ireland. We could decide to bring it in straight away for certain sectors. Or we could keep it as an option to deploy if the Covid situation worsens again, or if there is non-compliance in key areas.

“But we need to get it prepared first. Again it’s regrettable that a decision hasn’t been taken to date. In the meantime I would ask people not to be distracted by the pragmatic decision taken last night regarding indoor seated entertainment venues.”

Meanwhile, the North’s Department of Health reported a further four deaths of Covid-19 patients and an additional 1,078 positive cases on Tuesday. In the North’s hospitals 362 people with Covid-19 are receiving treatment, with 27 in intensive care. – Additional reporting: PA