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Stormont Executive confirms nightclubs will close on Boxing Day, but no financial compensation agreed

Stormont Ministers have confirmed that nightclubs in Northern Ireland will close on Boxing Day, while no financial package to support businesses has yet been agreed.

It comes as Northern Ireland recorded its highest ever daily number of Covid-19 cases.

First Minister Paul Givan, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and the Health Minister Robin Swann announced the latest measures on Wednesday evening.

Ms O’Neill thanked the public for taking steps to protect their families in the run up to Christmas.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

“As the situation stands today, Omicron already accounts for 40% of our Covid cases and it will become the dominant strain within a matter of days,” she said.

With the infection rate expected to rise sharply in the coming weeks, she said the Executive had agreed “a proportionate” package of measures.

From December 27, the guidance is for mixing in a domestic setting to be limited to three households.

There will be a renewed emphasis on working from home as well as a legal requirement for workplaces to take reasonable measures to facilitate social distancing of two metres.

Workplace Covid testing will also be “strongly encouraged”.

Measures around face coverings will be strengthened, with a legal duty on all businesses to take reasonable steps to minimise the transmission of the virus.

Being seated in hospitality settings will become a legal requirement, with a maximum of six people at a table.

As previously reported, nightclubs will be closed from 6am on December 26.

Indoor dancing and standing events will not be allowed.

Ms O’Neill said it was clearly “an evolving situation” which would be kept under continuous review, with the Executive set to meet again on December 30.

On financial support for businesses and individuals, she said: “We will continue to press the Treasury for financial support because that gives us more flexibility in managing the situation as we see fit here, not depending on what happens in England.”

She added: “We are developing a financial package, details of which to follow, in terms of how we can support businesses and workers through this challenging time.”

The Health Minister Robin Swann said he welcomed the Executive’s agreed position.

He said there was a dual threat due to the sheer speed of the spread of Omicron, but also because of “unprecedented” workforce disruption in health and other essential services.

Encouraging the public to get their boosters, he said it was now easier to get a vaccine than it ever has been before.

“If you’re still unvaccinated, please don’t wait any longer,” he said.

Mr Swann said it was likely that cases of Omicron would peak in Northern Ireland in mid-January, with hospital admissions depending on the severity of the variant.

“That uncertainty should not breed complacency, we must take the threat extremely seriously.”

Mr Swann said the precautionary approach would have been to impose tougher sanctions, but the Executive’s options were “extremely limited” given the absence of a furlough scheme or other financial package.

Asked if the Executive would have gone further if more money was available, Mr Givan said the conversion rate of those who were infected and then hospitalised was still at a low figure of around 1 %.

Ms O’Neill described the measures as “reasonable and proportionate” given what was currently known about the severity of Omicron.

She said the money issue was “a huge challenge” and Northern Ireland did not have the additional money that was available in England and Wales.

“We are going to design a financial package based on what we currently have, but I will continue to fight the fight with the treasury if further interventions are required.

“We must have the back of the worker…without the finances available to back this up it makes all these decision points very difficult.”

No restrictions have yet been placed on sporting events, meaning thousands will still be able to attend events in the coming week.

Mr Givan said he would encourage those attending events not to car share.

Reacting to the announcement, Hospitality Ulster’s Chief Executive Colin Neill said: “Announcing business closure without financial support is contemptable and shows no consideration for staff and business owners.

“Businesses closed, additional restrictions imposed and supply chains impacted with no support - what sort of situation is that to force upon those who are crying out for help?”

He continued: “Business owners and staff have been left high and dry about their future over Christmas. Do our Executive Ministers not see what state the hospitality sector is in? It’s not acceptable to have to wait until December 30 and have so many people worrying over the holiday period.”

It comes as the vaccination and booster programme have been stepped up in recent weeks, including the opening of the a mass vaccination centre at the Titanic Exhibition Centre.

On Tuesday the Health Minister Robin Swann revealed up to two thirds of Covid-19 patients in hospital aged under-50 are unvaccinated.

He said vaccination was the key to avoiding “severe restrictions”.

It comes as Northern Ireland has recorded it’s highest ever daily total of new positive cases with 3,231 recorded in the last 24 hours. A further three deaths linked to Covid-19 were also recorded.

Chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride has previously said that the variant is likely to become the dominant strain in Northern Ireland in January.

The Treasury has announced additional funds of around £150m to help Northern Ireland tackle Covid, although DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has warned it is not enough to deliver a furlough scheme.

The Department of Finance has developed proposals that ministers will be asked to consider, such as additional business grants and extra help for sectors like close-contact services, which may be affected by a reduction in footfall due to the spread of cases.

Music promoter Joe Dougan manages the Limelight in Belfast, he said the latest decision showed that nightclubs had become the “whipping boy” of coronavirus measures.

“I think the Executive are in a difficult situation, it’s been developing pretty quickly over the last two weeks,” he told the Belfast Telegraph

“England still haven’t made a decision and there still isn’t an official line out there about how serious the Omicron strain can be compared to the Delta strain.

“The point I’ve been trying to make is that our industry has been completely closed for 87 weeks and only open for the last seven.

“We were completely unable to trade and this is supposed to be the busiest week of trade for us.

“Between Christmas and New Year is absolutely crucial, the end result of this I believe will be no reduction in Covid.

“All night clubs have a very robust entry procedure that doesn’t allow anyone on the premises that isn’t double vaccinated or able to present proof of a negative lateral flow test.”

He added that revellers would now be likely to flock to unregulated environments like house parties where Covid will be able to spread.

“That’s not just between similar age ranges, but intergenerationally which is much more dangerous,” he said.

“It’s hugely disappointing for this industry although we did anticipate this. But after such a long time of being unable to blow it’s a hammer blow for the industry.”

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