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Covid restrictions: Givan and O’Neill at odds over stricter enforcement of face masks

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First Minister Paul Givan and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. Credit: Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

First Minister Paul Givan and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. Credit: Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

First Minister Paul Givan and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. Credit: Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

The First and Deputy First Ministers were at odds on Thursday over plans for stricter reinforcement on face coverings.

Paul Givan said those who are medically exempt from wearing face coverings in Northern Ireland will no longer have to prove it — but Michelle O’Neill denied the plan had been completely scrapped.

In December, the Executive indicated it would remove some exemptions on face coverings and place the onus on the individual to provide medical proof on why they cannot wear one. Mr Givan said the policy is now suspended “indefinitely”.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

He said no one will be asked by businesses to provide proof for not wearing a mask, but said the Executive was still “encouraging” people to follow the law around the use of face coverings in risky settings.

He said there has been clear evidence brought forward that individuals with “very valid reasons for being exempt” were becoming very distressed around providing proof.

“Assurances had been provided both to me and to other ministers that this process could be certified through GPs, that clearly is not the case because of the pressures the GPs are taking, and therefore this policy has now been suspended in terms of any enforcement that would be associated,” he said.

“No business should be asking anybody to provide proof for not wearing a face covering, that is something that businesses should not be doing. What we are still encouraging, and it is still the law, where you can wear a face mask, you should be wearing a face covering within the different settings that we have said that is required, so if that is public transport and different areas that people are now very familiar with.”

However, Ms O’Neill said: “We haven’t decided it is not going to happen but we have found it very difficult to make it work.”

No further restrictions were announced yesterday as Northern Ireland passed the grim milestone of 3,000 deaths linked to Covid-19 and the Department of Health recorded another four deaths linked to the virus. Another 6,877 positive cases were also confirmed.

Instead, the public have been urged to get their booster vaccine, take regular lateral flow tests and to report all test results, both negative and positive on the official online service. Mr Givan said people receiving a jab and following health advice meant Northern Ireland had not seen “increases in this wave as we did have in previous waves”.

Meanwhile, the PSNI revealed that almost 10% of police officers in Northern Ireland are unavailable for work due to Covid-19. On Wednesday, there were 701 police officers (9.93%) and 156 police staff (6%) unavailable for work for reasons related to Covid-19.

Elsewhere, the Department of Health has announced that pre-departure Covid tests for travellers arriving in Northern Ireland will be scrapped.

From 4am on Friday, fully vaccinated passengers and under-18s will no longer need to take a pre-departure test or self-isolate on arrival.

Fully vaccinated passengers still need to complete a passenger locator form and take a test on or before day two of their arrival. From Sunday, this can be either a lateral flow or PCR test.

Anyone with a positive LFT will be required to book a free confirmatory PCR test and isolate. If the PCR is negative, the isolation period can end.


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