The Executive has decided to end social distancing restrictions for shops, theatres and some other indoor settings in Northern Ireland. At a meeting on Monday night, ministers decided to remove the one-metre distance requirement for the retail sector, indoor attractions and seated indoor venues.
However, ministers were split on vaccine certification and over guidance to business and venue owners to mitigate the impact of allowing a return to full capacity.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of making an “astounding and reckless” decision to oppose moves to introduce certification in light of winter pressures on health services. First Minister Paul Givan tweeted: “Progress made after a constructive meeting of the Executive to remove social distancing requirements for indoor seated venues, indoor visitor attractions and retail settings.
“Guidance will be provided for measures that can be taken to mitigate risk.”
The measures are to take effect from 6pm on Thursday. Further consideration is to be given to the hospitality sector on October 7.
The Executive said that despite the social distancing requirement being removed, “we would ask people to keep close face to face contact to a minimum at all times”.
An Executive statement said: “The Executive has today considered the existing regulations and has agreed to remove the legal requirement to socially distance in retail and indoor visitor attractions.
“We ask that those responsible for these venues, and those attending them, continue to utilise all other available mitigations such as hand sanitising, good ventilation, and using one way systems where possible. The wearing of a face covering remains a legal requirement in these settings.
“The Executive has also decided to remove the requirement to socially distance in indoor seated venues such as theatres, concert halls and cinemas.”
The advice includes the installation of screening, one-way systems and increased ventilation. Ministers will issue additional guidance to indoor seated venues advising that they introduce entry policies that require proof of either Covid-19 vaccination, a negative lateral flow test or evidence of a positive PCR test within the previous six months.
However, ministers were split on this. The SDLP’s Nichola Mallon opposed the move to only advise that indoor seated venues ask for Covid certification or negative lateral flow test result or proof of infection in the last six months.
Ms Mallon proposed that the steps be mandatory. She also wanted the measure beefed up to mean patrons had to show vaccine certification and a negative lateral flow test or proof of infection in the last six months.
Alliance Justice Minister Naomi Long supported this but the other ministers, including Health Minister Robin Swann, voted against it.
When it came to the vote on the original proposal to make the recommendations in guidance only, Ms Mallon voted against and Ms Long abstained. Foyle MP Mr Eastwood said: “It is astounding and reckless that DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers have kicked the can down the road instead of bringing certainty and clarity.
“Their decision not to put vaccine certifications in regulation but instead to remove social distancing requirements and advise businesses to opt in is totally irresponsible. Not only does this offer no incentive for vaccination, it puts the onus entirely on businesses themselves. This is a cop out and another failure of leadership.”
Ministers will not consider social distancing in the hospitality sector until next week. Four further deaths of patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 were reported here on Monday, along with 903 new confirmed cases.