Northern Ireland scraps Covid-19 rules

Robin Swann urged the public not to ‘take the plunge’ and warned the pandemic is not over

All remaining legal Covid-19 restrictions in Northern Ireland are to be lifted and replaced with guidance from February 15, the health minister has said.

However, Robin Swann urged the public not to “take the plunge” and warned that the pandemic is not over.

The move comes on the advice of Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Michael McBride.

As things stand in Northern Ireland, people are still required to wear face coverings in public places and Covid certificates are required for nightclubs.

Previously, ministers at Stormont had given their “unanimous support” for Mr Swann to ease Covid restrictions in Northern Ireland, according to Sinn Fein leader at Stormont Michelle O’Neill.

Mr Swann, who himself tested positive for Covid-19, was told last week of the potential legal complications of his replacing Covid regulations with advice, without the wider approval of an executive.

He has written to other ministers asking for their advice and asking them to respond by Monday.

Current Covid-19 regulations in Northern Ireland were not due to expire until March 24, but were previously reviewed by the executive every three weeks.

But Northern Ireland has no functioning executive after the DUP removed Paul Givan as Prime Minister, in a protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Swann, who continues to work from home, had wondered whether removing the restrictions would hurt the responsibilities of other ministers.

In a statement on Monday, he said: ‘Today’s announcement follows consideration of the Attorney General’s legal advice and consultation with all ministerial colleagues.

“This brings our response against Covid into a new phase. With the reduced threat of the Omicron variant, we can move from an emergency and legalistic framework to a new approach where making safer choices is integrated into our daily lives.

“This means that we all continue to do our best to reduce the risk of infection and transmission. This means taking care of each other by following public health guidelines.

“We must always remember that taking unnecessary risks with Covid can affect people who are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

“So please don’t take the leap and start behaving like the pandemic is over. It’s not.”

Mr Swann said that while the Omicron variant was less severe than previous strains, “community transmission remains very high and hospital pressures significant”.

He added: “Those most vulnerable due to underlying disease remain susceptible to serious illness and it is important that we do all we can to protect them.”

The health minister said he would keep the current situation under review.

He said: “Coronavirus is likely to stick with us in one form or another for some time. We cannot maintain emergency restrictions indefinitely. Much of what we currently do to protect ourselves is already covered by guidelines rather than regulations.

“This includes self-isolating if infected and performing lateral flow tests before meeting other people. The guidelines will continue to emphasize all the steps we must continue to take to protect each other.

“I will, of course, keep the regulatory situation under continuous and detailed review. We cannot exclude that a new variant emerges on the line and that new interventions are necessary. I really hope that won’t be the case.”

Mr Swann said he had been advised by health officials that the decision to ease restrictions was unlikely to create a significant increase in the number of people in intensive care.

In a letter to executive ministers on Monday, seen by the PA news agency, Mr Swann warned he would not be able to unilaterally reintroduce restrictions if the Covid-19 situation worsened.

“While it was possible for me to relax these latest statutory restrictions without reference to the executive, I am fully aware that I would not be in the same position – nor would I want to be – if I I was called upon to reintroduce restrictions, or introduce new restrictions, following a new variant for example,” he said.

“As my ministerial colleagues know, I intend to ensure that the Department of Health retains temporary powers under public health legislation to act in response to an urgent need; but I am aware that even with these powers in place, it is difficult to foresee the circumstances in which they might be exercised, if the executive is not restored.

Other politicians hailed the decision.

In a video message posted to Twitter, Ms O’Neill said: ‘I’m really happy to say that we are entering a new phase in this pandemic where we can all look forward to a better and brighter future.

“I think we all know this day has been a long time coming so tonight from me can I just say thank you.

“Thank you for the efforts and the sacrifices you have made. Thank you for taking care of each other because it has shined through throughout the pandemic.”

Paying tribute to frontline workers, she said: ‘We are finally seeing the light at the end of what has been an extremely long tunnel and it is certainly a very good day.

Nichola Mallon, Minister for Infrastructure in the Executive, called it a “major milestone”, adding: “This decision should never have been jeopardized by the DUP who prioritized political stunts rather than the needs of the people we all represent”.

Meanwhile, two other people who previously tested positive for Covid-19 have died in Northern Ireland, the Department of Health has said.

Another 2,465 confirmed cases of the virus were also notified during the last 24-hour reporting period.

As of Monday, there were 437 hospitalized Covid-19 patients, including 13 in intensive care.