DUP to await detail before making decision on Covid passports

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The DUP has said it will await details around proposals for mandatory vaccine passports in Northern Ireland before deciding whether to support the move.

The party said the best way to maximise vaccine uptake was with encouragement rather than compulsion and said it would be uncomfortable with a situation where access to services was based on vaccination status.

However, a DUP spokesman said the party would always act in the interest of protecting the region’s health service.

Health Minister Robin Swann has called for a phased introduction of mandatory passports and his proposals are set to be discussed at the Executive on Wednesday. It is not yet clear whether a final decision will be taken at that meeting.

Edwin Poots announces ministerial team
Former DUP minister Paul Frew is a vocal critic of the proposal (Liam McBurney/PA)

The powersharing administration currently recommends that nightclubs and other entertainment venues use Covid status checks on entry, but it has stopped short of making it a legal requirement.

The issue has sharply divided the five-party coalition in Belfast, with the SDLP and Alliance having been calling for weeks for a mandatory certification system as a way to make venues safer and drive up vaccination uptake rates.

The two main parties in the Executive – the DUP and Sinn Fein – had resisted those calls for compulsory passports, instead expressing a preference for a “partnership approach” with the hospitality industry.

The intervention by Ulster Unionist minister Mr Swann has shifted the dynamic within the Executive.

Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill responded to his announcement on Monday by making clear her party would follow the advice of health officials on the matter.

The position of the DUP could therefore prove pivotal in determining whether the system will be introduced.

If the DUP opposed the move it could potentially block the proposal by deploying a cross-community voting mechanism.

If the party opposed it but did not deploy that mechanism, the support of the other four Executive parties would be enough to see mandatory passports introduced.

Hijacked bus – Co Antrim
SDLP minister Nichola Mallon said hospitals were at ‘breaking point’ (Liam McBurney/PA)

Some prominent DUP members – including MP Sammy Wilson, current Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and former economy minister Paul Frew – have voiced opposition to the proposal.

“The introduction of domestic Covid passports in Northern Ireland would be yet another unacceptable step towards unwarranted state control of people’s personal lives,” said Mr Wilson.

However, a DUP spokesman said a final decision had not been taken on the issue.

“We need to see the detail of the Health Minister’s proposals and how this would be managed. We will then come to a decision,” he said.

“We feel the best way to maximise vaccine take-up is to encourage rather than force.

“Proof of vaccination or a negative test has been used for a large number of events such as Balmoral Show (agricultural show).

“We don’t want to be in a situation where people’s access to services is based solely on vaccination. That sits uncomfortably with us but we must always act in the interest of protecting our health service.

“In many cases, people without a vaccination are more seriously impacted by Covid-19 and therefore require hospital treatment.”

Mr Swann’s proposal comes amid escalating pressures on the region’s beleaguered health system.

Covid-19 transmission rates have also surged in recent weeks, particularly among young people.

Mr Swann said he wanted ministers to discuss the timing of the move and what settings it should be initially applied to.

General Election 2019
Alliance minister Naomi Long asked why the system had not been introduced earlier (Liam McBurney/PA)

Making certification a legal entry requirement for hospitality venues has been credited with driving up vaccination rates among young people in the Irish Republic.

North of the border, the Executive has recommended that nightclubs and other venues carry out Covid entry checks and an official app has been developed to enable people to show proof of their vaccine status.

However, a majority of ministers have so far resisted calls to make it a legal requirement of entry.

SDLP minister Nichola Mallon, a vocal advocate of mandatory certification, said the region’s hospitals were at “breaking point”.

“For me, this is long overdue and I think it really is a right and responsible thing,” she told BBC Radio Ulster.

“And I hope that all of the Executive can examine the evidence and that we can agree this and get moving on it extremely quickly.”

Alliance minister Naomi Long questioned why passports were not made mandatory when social distancing rules were lifted in the hospitality industry at the end of October.

“It does beg the question, I have to say, as to what has gone wrong, given that we were given assurance at that time by the Health Minister that doing this on a voluntary basis would be adequate and that we’ve been told since that venues have been complying with that,” she told the BBC.

Mrs Long said she would not support compulsory passports for accessing public services.

“But I think when you’re talking about areas of life which are optional it is reasonable, particularly where there is no social distancing possible,” she said.

Asked about the prospect of the DUP opposing the move, Mrs Long said decisions should not be taken on the basis of “ideology” rather on how best to relieve pressure on the health service and save lives.

Mr Swann has said, if approved, he would like to see the mandatory system being rolled out as soon as the legal regulations were in place – a process he said would take between two to three weeks.

He acknowledged there would be a need for engagement with the hospitality sector in the interim.

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