The North's First Minister Paul Givan has likened Covid-19 passports to demanding someone disclose whether they are taking medication for depression.
During a heated exchange in the Stormont Assembly, SDLP Lagan Valley MLA Pat Catney urged Mr Givan to set up a vaccination certificate scheme.
Unlike the Republic, there is no such scheme in the North, and people do not have to show proof of vaccination when dining out, going to pubs or attending other entertainment venues.
Mr Catney said those aged over 50 who have not been vaccinated are five times more likely to be admitted to hospital for Covid.
Calling for a “mandatory” certificate scheme, he said it would “protect citizens and prevent a further lockdown”.
During topical questions to the First Minister, Mr Catney demanded Mr Givan “make a decision to mandate passports” and he asked if all of the DUP’s 26 MLAs were inoculated against the virus.
In an animated response, Mr Givan said a Covid-19 passport scheme “would impinge on people’s civil rights”.
“I really do regret this demand to ask people if they have been vaccinated or not,” he said.
“We are at a point in our society where people who have not got the vaccine, and I wish they did, I really wish they did get it, but they haven’t got it, and it is not the place of members of this society or other members of society to be asking people ‘have you been vaccinated or not?’”
Mr Givan said it wasn’t the case “for any other type of illness”.
“Nobody walks up to somebody and says: Are you on medication because of your depression, or are you taking medication because you have a heart condition, are you taking your medication because you have cancer?
“There comes a point where we need to respect people’s decisions when it comes to this.”
Mr Givan said he had been double vaccinated “but the way in which people are trying to coerce people, actually it is counter-productive and if you allow people to listen to the medical and scientific advice without these coercive attempts, you’ll have a better outcome.”
The First Minister said the “overwhelming majority” of over 50s in the North had received both jabs of a vaccine “providing them with the protection that wasn’t there in previous waves” of the pandemic.
This has resulted in lower hospitalisation rates, he said, pointing out that there were as many as 800 Covid patients in hospital in January, while the number was less than half of that on Monday.
Mr Givan credited the reduced hospitalisations to the success of the vaccine programme.
“We aren’t having the same number of deaths, and every death is something which is more than regrettable when it happens, but we are not having the same severe health impact on people aged 50 and over that we were having and that is because of the vaccine programme,” he said.
“The issue around certification — I’ve asked for what would be the scientific and medical basis for that. It requires the weighing up of equality impact considerations, human rights considerations.”
Responding on Twitter afterwards, Mr Catney said: “The last time I checked cancer isn’t spread via airborne transmission.”