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The leader of the DUP has said he has an open mind on proposals for mandatory vaccine passports in Northern Ireland.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the onus was on Health Minister Robin Swann to demonstrate that introducing compulsory certification would help reduce the pressures on the region’s hospitals and would be a “proportionate and reasonable” measure.
“I’m keeping an open mind, I want to hear what the minister has to say, we want to see the evidence and then we’ll come to a view on it,” said Sir Jeffrey.
Mr Swann has called for a phased introduction of mandatory passports and his proposals are set to be debated at the Executive on Wednesday.
The DUP has the power to potentially veto the move and a number of high profile party members have already voiced opposition.
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 will 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.
Some prominent DUP members – including MP Sammy Wilson, current Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and former economy minister Paul Frew – have heavily criticised the proposal.
Sir Jeffrey declined to be drawn when asked by reporters at Stormont on Tuesday whether he would deploy the veto. He said he favoured a “consensus approach”.
The party leader said he and colleagues could only make a final decision when they saw the detail of the proposals.
He said DUP First Minister Paul Givan was set to meet Mr Swann and senior health officials on Tuesday night to discuss the issue.
“I am not in a position to make a judgement on proposals that we have not yet seen,” he said.
Sir Jeffrey added: “I favour a consensus approach and what I want to see is a consensus reached on this.
“That’s why we will work with the Minister of Health to see if we can come up with solutions that work, solutions that actually deliver in terms of easing the pressures on our hospitals at this time.”
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.
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.
The deaths of a further five patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were reported on Tuesday along with another 1,698 positive cases of the virus.
On Tuesday morning, there were 429 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 35 in intensive care.