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Covid certification entry requirements could be dropped across a number of hospitality settings in Northern Ireland, the First Minister has said.
Paul Givan said, while he would support the removal of mandatory certification entirely, he anticipated a majority of ministers in the powersharing administration will back proposals to retain the mandatory system in higher risk settings.
Mr Givan’s comments came ahead of a meeting of the Executive on Thursday afternoon.
Laws requiring people to prove Covid status to gain entry to a range of hospitality venues and large-attendance events were introduced last November.
The move proved politically contentious with Mr Givan’s DUP party voting against the scheme while the other four Stormont Executive parties backed it.
Patrons wishing to access nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and other licensed premises have been required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test result or evidence of a previous Covid-19 infection.
The same rules have applied for entry to large indoor and outdoor events, such as concerts and sporting events.
The PA news agency understands that ministers are considering proposals that would see the legal requirement for Covid certification remain in place for nightclubs and indoor unseated and partially-seated events with 500 or more attendees.
However, for all other settings where certification is now required, such as restaurants, pubs and cinemas, the legal requirement would be replaced on January 26 with guidance to “strongly encourage” the continued use of certification.
Nightclubs have been closed in Northern Ireland since December 26 as part of a series of restrictions agreed on December 22 in response to the Omicron variant.
Ministers also imposed fresh measures on the rest of the hospitality sector, including a return of table service and a ban on dancing.
Ministers are expected to announce the removal of the December restrictions after Thursday’s meeting.
This is anticipated to be part of a phased approach to the lifting of remaining Covid restrictions in the region.
PA understands the measures under consideration by the Executive envisage one phase this week and one next.
From January 21, the requirement for table service in the hospitality sector and the “rule of six” on table numbers would be removed.
Guidance to keep domestic indoor gatherings limited to three households would also be lifted, though gatherings should still be limited to 30 people in total.
In regard to face coverings, the requirement to provide proof of exemption would be removed and the reasonable excuse of “severe distress” would be reintroduced.
Earlier this month, Mr Givan already announced the rule to make people prove they were exempt had been suspended.
Mr Givan announced on Wednesday that the self-isolation period will be cut from seven to five days on January 21.
Under phase two of the proposals, from January 26 nightclubs could reopen and indoor standing events could resume.
The prohibition on dancing would be lifted.
The changes to Covid certification are also earmarked to January 26.
In workplaces, the requirement for office-based workplaces to take reasonable measures to have two-metre social distancing would be removed, with guidance remaining that risk assessments should still be carried out.
Ahead of the meeting, Mr Givan said he hoped the Executive would make decisions around easing hospitality restrictions when it met on Thursday.
Speaking during a visit to Londonderry, he said: “We are understanding where Omicron is in our community, in terms of pressures it is creating in our health service and we have a much more positive picture now which gives us the room to take decisions today.
“I am hopeful we will be able to make changes to hospitality, to nightclubs in terms of the prohibition on dancing.
“I believe that later today we will have made significant progress in a number of areas.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that while the pandemic was not over, she believed Northern Ireland had passed the peak of Omicron.
She said: “The pandemic is far from over but we are cautiously optimistic.
“We believe we are through the peak and we believe we have some space now to be able to reverse the protections that we put in place over the course of the last number of weeks.
“It is a positive picture but I would ask people not to be complacent yet, we still have a journey to travel.
“I do think after our Executive meeting we hope we will be able to say positive things that will be welcomed by both individuals and also by the hospitality sector.”
The outcome of the deliberations on Covid restrictions is to be announced at a press conference in Londonderry on Thursday afternoon.
It is understood that, under the proposals being considered, remaining restrictions and guidance would be reviewed at a Stormont Executive meeting on February 10.
– Legal duty on the retail sector to take reasonable measures to reduce transmission risks.
– Legal requirements on wearing face coverings and associated duty on businesses to ensure mask compliance.
– Legal requirement for Covid-19 related risk assessments.
– Legal requirement for taking track and trace details from customers/patrons.
– Remaining legal requirements for Covid certification.
– Working from home guidance.
– Guidance on taking lateral flow tests before meeting up with others.