Belfast Chamber slams ‘unforgivable’ plan for fresh measures without support for businesses
Stormont ministers crossed their fingers on Wednesday in the hope their new package of light-touch Covid restrictions would be enough to see Northern Ireland through the Omicron surge.
It was announced that nightclubs would close from Boxing Day, but sporting events will continue without any restrictions
This comes despite the highest ever number of local Covid cases being recorded on Wednesday.
At 3,231, it was up by more than half on the previous day. A further three deaths linked to the virus were also announced.
Other parts of the UK have taken tougher measures on sport. In Wales, all sporting events are to be played behind closed doors, while in Scotland, spectator numbers have been limited.
It is understood that Omicron is now the dominant strain of Covid in Northern Ireland, making up nearly 60% of cases.
But new data emerged on Wednesday suggesting people who catch it are less likely to be sent to hospital than those with Delta.
Research from Imperial College London indicates that people with Omicron are 15 to 20% less likely to need hospital and 40 to 45% less likely to require a stay of one night or more.
Scientists in a separate Scotland-wide study said Omicron was associated with a two-thirds reduction in the risk of hospitalisation compared with Delta.
However, researchers added that although it appears less severe, it is more transmissible partly because current vaccines are less effective against it.
Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, had previously issued gloomy predictions of up to 5,000 deaths per day in the UK. But on Wednesday, he said that while there could still be major pressure on the NHS, fewer deaths and shorter hospital stays were expected.
“Our analysis shows evidence of a moderate reduction in the risk of hospitalisation associated with the Omicron variant compared with Delta,” he added.
“However, this appears to be offset by the reduced efficacy of vaccines against infection with the Omicron variant.
“Given the high transmissibility of the Omicron strain, there remains the potential for health services to face increasing demand if cases continue to grow at the rate that has been seen in recent weeks.”
The local measures are a mix of mandatory requirements and recommendations or guidance.
Nightclubs must close from 6am on December 26. Dancing in hospitality venues will not be allowed, with the exception of weddings of civil partnership celebrations. All indoor standing events will be banned.
From 6am on December 27, it is “strongly recommended” but not legally required to reduce mixing to a maximum of three households.
Businesses will have a legal requirement to ensure two-metre social distancing in office spaces where possible.
It remains “strongly recommended” that people should work from home where possible, with regular workplace testing where this is not an option.
Table service will return for indoor hospitality, with a maximum of six people per table or 10 from a single household. Again, this does not apply to weddings or civil partnerships.
Indoor seating and all outdoor events can go ahead, but the guidance is to wear face coverings, take a Covid test before attending and avoid car sharing.
Boris Johnson has not announced any post-Christmas measures for England.
Both Wales and Scotland have announced financial packages for businesses, but Stormont has yet to agree any such programme of support.
While a package is being developed, the Executive said it would “continue to press the Treasury” for financial assistance and the reintroduction of the furlough scheme if required.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said funding was “a huge challenge” because Northern Ireland did not have the money available to England and Wales.
Health Minister Robin Swann said a more precautionary approach would have involved imposing tougher sanctions but that the Executive’s options were “extremely limited” because of a lack of resources.
Asked if the Executive would have gone further if more money had been available, First Minister Paul Givan said the rate of people who were infected and then hospitalised was still relatively low, at around 1%.
Despite that, the lack of clarity around support for business was swiftly condemned.
Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton said: “Today, the Executive has added insult to injury.
“As well as having to deal with the impact of additional measures, businesses haven’t been offered a single penny in financial support. That is simply unacceptable and unforgivable.”
Hospitality Ulster chief Colin Neill said announcing closures without financial support was “contemptible”.
But the Executive’s announcement was welcomed by Dr Tom Black, the local chair of the British Medical Association.
“These measures are welcome and we hope they will help mitigate some of the worst effects of the spread of Covid, along with the already obvious majority public adherence to social distancing advice,” he said.
While appreciating the disappointment that comes with more restrictions, he said the risk of the Omicron variant putting extra strain on the “exhausted and demoralised [health] workforce” could not be ignored.