Stormont urges the public to ‘reset’ Covid rules with renewed work-from-home advice

Updated 1 hour ago

Northern Ireland ministers are urging the public to reset their approach to Covid rules after strengthening advice on working from home in the face of rising infection rates.

The Belfast Power Sharing CEO also approved a series of other steps today aimed at increasing compliance with existing Covid restrictions and advice.

After a meeting of the Five-Year Coalition, Prime Minister Paul Gevan and Deputy Prime Minister Michelle O’Neill confirmed their intention to keep businesses open through Christmas.

Their comments came after Health Secretary Robin Swann warned yesterday that some hospitality outlets may have to close over the holiday period if the current wave of coronavirus cases is not quelled.

In a rare appearance at a joint press conference, demonstrating a desire to present a united front, Jeevan, O’Neill and Swan all insisted that the scenario could be avoided if people followed steps agreed upon by the executive.

People are urged to work from home wherever possible from now on.

That was the current advice from Stormont, but companies were also urged to prepare for a gradual return to the office.

This guidance has now been revised and employers are encouraged to support employees who wish to work from home, where possible.

However, a proposal from Swann that would have seen ministers urging people who worked from home at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to do so again has not been approved.

The PA News Agency understands that some ministers have expressed concern that the advice may cause confusion, as many sectors that were closed in March 2020 are now open, and therefore, their employees do not have the option to stay at home.

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Much of the plan approved by ministers focused on reinforcing messaging around public health measures, such as wearing face masks, hand hygiene and limiting social contacts.

The executive has also tasked its Covid task force with working with sectors and agencies on issues related to the erratic application of mask-wearing rules.

The task force, led by Stormont’s junior ministers, will also look at the possibility of creating a kind system just around the corner for evaluating companies on their compliance with rules and mitigation.

The CEO said it’s imperative that people make safer choices.

Ministers urged people to limit their social contacts; meet outdoors wherever possible; Ensure that indoor meeting places are well ventilated; wearing face coverings in crowded or indoor places; Continue to wash hands or use sanitizer.

Jeevan said the coalition wants to protect «lives and livelihoods.»

“We work on the basis that things are open and safe,” he said.

We do not operate on the basis of a desire to shut things down. I want our hospitality to be open during the Christmas period. I want people to be able to open up and do it safely.

«There is also the financial fact that there is no furlough scheme, and there are not hundreds of millions coming in from London that we have been able to provide in that kind of financial support.»

O’Neill asked the public to play their part in keeping the community open.

«This is clearly the moment to reset things and really refocus where we are,» she said.

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“These are certainly uncertain times. But now is the time to act, and if we want to achieve the best possible outcome now is the time to act.

«And this is actually our best chance to avoid further instructions later.»

O’Neill added: «Our goal is to keep everyone open and safe and to keep businesses operating safely so that beneficiaries can attend. That’s what we’re trying to do today.»

Swan said the closure of hospitality outlets at Christmas was «not inevitable.»

He said that increased uptake of vaccination and more adherence to public health measures could help avoid the need for such restrictions.

The minister said the proposals approved by the executive were aimed at preventing a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in other parts of Europe.

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«It is now time to take these measures so that in the future we will not have to take any other action, and this is what the executive body has collectively agreed upon,» he said.

Tension in Stormont

The decisions announced today came after a period marked by disagreements between various ministers over key COVID policy issues.

The DUP voted against Swan’s Covid-19 certification scheme for the hospitality sector, while the University of Abuja’s health minister found himself at odds with coalition justice minister Naomi Long over how to tackle low compliance rates while wearing a face mask.

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At the joint press conference outside Stormont Castle, Jeevan, O’Neill and Swan acknowledged differences of opinion within the executive branch, but said they were all determined to deliver a collective message on the latest agreed actions.

The three ministers also spoke of the need for systemic reform of health services under stress in the region and emphasized a unified approach within the executive branch to prioritize the system moving forward, including the upcoming budget plan.

Jeevan said planning for the Christmas party should continue, but stressed the need for organizers to carry out risk assessments.

«Obviously I want things to be able to move forward and for people to make plans and arrangements but to do it in a safe way,» he said.

The first minister said the «most impactful individual contribution» people could make was to receive the vaccine and subsequent boosters.

The Covid certification scheme for hospitality companies will be rolled out next week. Fines for non-compliance will become effective two weeks later on December 13.

Under the mandatory certification scheme, people wishing to enter certain premises will need to show evidence of Covid-19 vaccination, a negative lateral flow test result, or evidence of coronavirus infection within the previous six months.

Four more patients who previously tested positive for Covid-19 were reported to have died in Northern Ireland on Tuesday along with 1,476 other cases of the virus.

This morning, there were 390 patients with Covid in hospital, 33 of whom are in intensive care.

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