Northern Ireland ministers have urged the public to reset their approach to Covid rules after bolstering work from home advice in the face of surging infection rates.
The powersharing executive in Belfast also agreed a series of other steps on Tuesday aimed at increasing compliance with existing Covid restrictions and advice.
After a meeting of the five-party coalition, First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill stressed their determination to keep businesses open over Christmas.
Their comments came after a warning from Health Minister Robin Swann on Monday that some hospitality outlets may be forced to close over the festive period if the current wave of coronavirus cases is not suppressed.
In rare joint press conference appearance, indicative of a desire to present a united front, Mr Givan, Ms O’Neill and Mr Swann all insisted that scenario could be averted if people followed the steps agreed by the Executive.
People are being urged to work from home where possible going forward.
That was the existing advice from Stormont, however businesses were also being urged to prepare for a gradual return to the office.
That guidance has now been revised and employers are being encouraged to support, where possible, those staff who want to work from home.
However, a proposal from Mr Swann that would have seen ministers urge people who worked from home at the outset of the pandemic in March 2020 to do so again has not been adopted.
The PA news agency understands that some ministers had expressed concern that advice could cause confusion, as many sectors that were closed in March 2020 are now open and, as such, their staff do not have the option of remaining at home.
Much of the plan agreed by ministers focuses on reinforcing messaging around public health measures, such as face mask wearing, hand hygiene and limiting social contacts.
The Executive has also tasked its Covid taskforce to work with sectors and agencies on issues around patchy enforcement of mask-wearing rules.
The task force, led by Stormont’s junior ministers, will also look at the potential of setting up a scores-on-the-doors type system to rate businesses on their compliance with rules and mitigations.
The Executive said it was vital that people make safer choices.
Ministers urged people to reduce their social contacts; meet outdoors where possible; make sure indoor meeting places are well ventilated; wear face coverings in crowded or indoor settings; and continue to wash hands or use sanitiser.
Mr Givan said the coalition wanted to protect both “lives and livelihoods”.
“We are working on the basis of having things open and safe,” he said.
“We’re not working on the basis of wanting to close down things. I want our hospitality to be open right through our Christmas period. I want to have people being able to open and to do so safely.
“There’s also a financial reality that there isn’t the furlough scheme, there isn’t the hundreds of millions coming from London that we were able to provide in that kind of financial support.”
Ms O’Neill asked for the public to play their part in keeping society open.
“So clearly this is a moment to reset things and really refocus on where we are,” she said.
“These certainly are uncertain times. But now’s the time for action and if we want to achieve the best possible outcome right now, then now is the time to act.
“And this is our best chance actually at avoiding further instructions down the line.”
Ms O’Neill added: “Our objective is to keep everybody open and safe and to keep businesses operating safely that patrons can attend. That’s what we’re trying to do today.”
Mr Swann said the closure of hospitality outlets at Christmas was “not inevitable”.
He said increased uptake in vaccination and more adherence to public health measures could help avoid the need for such restrictions.
The minister said the proposals agreed by the Executive were aimed at preventing soaring numbers of Covid cases experienced in other parts of Europe.
“The time is now to take these actions so that in future we don’t have to take any further action and that is what the Executive has agreed collectively,” he said.
The decisions announced on Tuesday came after a period marked by disagreements among various ministers on key Covid policy issues.
The DUP voted against Mr Swann’s plan for a Covid certification scheme for the hospitality sector while the UUP Health Minister also found himself at odds with Alliance Justice Minister Naomi Long on how to address low compliance rates with face mask wearing.
At the joint press conference outside Stormont Castle, Mr Givan, Ms O’Neill and Mr Swann all acknowledged there were differences of opinion within the Executive, but they said they were all determined to deliver a collective message on the latest actions agreed.
The three ministers also all spoke of the need for systemic reform of the region’s under pressure health service and stressed a united approach within the Executive to prioritise the system going forward, including in the upcoming budget plan.
Mr Givan said Christmas party planning should continue, but stressed the need for organisers to carry out risk assessments.
“Obviously I want things to be able to continue to go ahead and people make plans and arrangements but to do that in a safe way,” he said.
The First Minister said the “single most impactful contribution” that people could make is to receive the vaccine and the subsequent boosters.
The Covid certification system for hospitality businesses is being rolled out next week. Fines for non-compliance will be become enforceable two weeks after that on December 13.
Under the compulsory certification scheme, people wishing to gain entry to designated venues would need to demonstrate evidence of Covid-19 vaccination, a negative lateral flow test result, or proof of a coronavirus infection within the previous six months.
The deaths of a further four patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were reported on Tuesday along with another 1,476 positive cases of the virus.
On Tuesday morning, there were 390 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 33 in intensive care.