NI Health Minister proposes use of mandatory vaccine passports from December 13

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Northern Ireland’s Health Minister has proposed that Covid-19 passports become mandatory in the region from December 13.

The PA news agency understands that Robin Swann has submitted a paper to the Executive proposing that certification is applied in a range of settings, including nightclubs, hospitality premises that service food and or drink, cinemas, theatres and conferences halls.

Passports would also be needed to access indoor events with 500 or more attendees where some or all of the audience is not normally seated.

They would be required for outdoor events with 4,000 or more attendees where some or all of the audience is not normally seated.

They would also be needed to access all events of 10,000 or more attendees, regardless of whether the audience is seated or not.

Mr Swann is proposing that regulations needed for the law change come into effect on November 29, with a 14-day grace period prior to becoming enforceable on December 13.

The minister has asked ministers to make a decision on his recommendation at Wednesday’s Executive meeting.

However, in order for the matter to be raised at the meeting both the DUP and Sinn Fein must first agree to having it placed on the agenda.

Confirmation of the final agenda was awaited on Tuesday night.

Earlier, the leader of the DUP said he had an open mind on proposals for mandatory vaccine passports.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the onus was on Mr 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.

The DUP has the power to potentially veto the move and a number of high profile party members have already voiced opposition.

DUP First Minister Paul Givan was scheduled to meet Mr Swann and senior health officials on Tuesday night to discuss the issue.

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 evening whether he would deploy the veto. He said he favoured a “consensus approach”.

“I favour a consensus approach and what I want to see is a consensus reached on this,” he said.

“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 proposals come amid escalating pressures on the region’s beleaguered health system.

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

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

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.

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