Rules on self-isolation also discussed by ministers
A one-off support payment fund to help those struggling with rising energy costs has been approved by the Executive.
Ministers also met at Stormont on Thursday to discuss the issue, alongside the latest Covid-19 data.
First Minister Paul Givan said that ministers had received an “optimistic” update on transmission rates and hospital figures revealing that the Executive could have the “headroom” to explore more reduced self-isolation measures.
It was confirmed the £200 payment to around 280,000 people needing support for energy costs has been approved by ministers but will need further Assembly approval before coming into force.
Those eligible for the payment will be individuals on low incomes who are in receipt of certain specified benefits, such as pension credit, universal credit and other income support benefits.
Those eligible also must have been in receipt of the benefits between Monday December 13 to Sunday December 19 2021 inclusive, according to the Department.
It is not yet clear when the scheme will come into force, with Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey stating the payments will be made “as soon as practically possible”.
The Department for Communities said the payment will be made through existing payment channels, without the need for an application.
The scheme was brought by Ms Hargey and approved by her Sinn Fein colleague and Finance Minister Conor Murphy.
“The cost of living crisis and rising fuel costs have left many families facing an uncertain winter. The prospect of choosing between heating your home or putting food on the table is a choice no family should have to make,” he said.
“Given the severe hardship facing families and the need to get support out onto the ground, I was keen to be able to allocate funding in advance of January monitoring.
“This vital funding will provide a lifeline to many families.”
It is the latest scheme from the Department of Communities aimed at helping those struggling with rising fuel costs.
A £2 million Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme, which aimed to benefit 20,000 families, opened on January 6.
However, applicants have reported problems in applying for the scheme, which is set at 333 applications per day.
In addition winter fuel payments have been made to more than 290,000 people in Northern Ireland.
My £55m Fuel Support Scheme has just been approved. This will see direct payments of £200 paid to 281,000 people across the north.— Deirdre Hargey (@DeirdreHargey) January 13, 2022
Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen welcomed the move but said support for those “affected households not in receipt of social security payments” should be clarified by the minister.
Meanwhile, changes to rules on self-isolation are also expected to be considered.
The issue was discussed during a meeting between all the devolved nations of the UK and the Government held on Wednesday.
Rules around self-isolation for positive tests were changed in Northern Ireland last month, with people able to stop self-isolating on day seven providing they receive negative lateral flow results on day six and day seven.
Requirements for testing also changed recently in the region, with people who get a positive lateral flow test no longer needing a PCR test to confirm that result.
Tomorrow the Northern Ireland Executive will consider latest data with increased confidence that severity is considerably less severe than delta and modelling following an optimistic scenario in hospitalisation pressures from Covid.— Paul Givan (@paulgivan) January 12, 2022
The Department of Health at Stormont would be in charge of changing the policy in Northern Ireland if a decision was taken by ministers.
During the Executive meeting it is not expected any further restrictions will be introduced.
Tweeting on Wednesday, First Minister Paul Givan said: “Tomorrow the Northern Ireland Executive will consider latest data with increased confidence that severity is considerably less than delta.
"Modelling following an optimistic scenario in hospitalisation pressures from Covid.
"The delivery of the vaccination programme has been very successful in building our defences to Omicron and the public following the health advice.
"We continue to face pressures across the public and private sector in staff absences. Thank you for the efforts everyone is making.”
The Department of Health has been approached for comment.