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Follow England’s lead and set a date for restrictions to end, urges Allister

TUV leader calls for Stormont to act over our Covid curbs after Johnson confirms July 19 as ‘Freedom Day’

The Prime Minister’s promise to lift most lockdown restrictions in England on July 19 will result in growing calls for the Executive to follow suit, an MLA has said.

The Tory leader’s pledge to tear up coronavirus regulations will see the caps on the number of people who can gather in a private household lifted, along with the restrictions on guests at weddings and funerals.

Work-from-home guidance will also be abolished in England, and mask-wearing and social distancing in most settings will also be scrapped from what’s been dubbed Freedom Day.

From July 19, night clubs will be allowed to reopen with no number restrictions and bars and restaurants will be allowed to operate without table service.

At a Downing Street news conference yesterday, Boris Johnson said it was his expectation that the final stage of the Government’s plan for England would go ahead as planned.

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Mr Johnson said the ability to end the vast majority of legal restrictions in England was thanks to the success of the vaccine rollout in breaking the link between cases and deaths.

"If we don't go ahead now when we've clearly done so much with the vaccination programme to break the link... when would we go ahead?" he said.

"We run the risk of either opening up at a very difficult time when the virus has an edge, has an advantage, in the cold months, or again putting everything off to next year."

But he warned cases were predicted to rise to 50,000 a day later this month in England and that "we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid".

Stormont’s Executive has so far opted not to set a date for the lifting of restrictions here. However, TUV leader Jim Allister said that in light of Mr Johnson’s statement, in which the Tory leader emphasised a need for personal responsibility going forward, he could see no reason why Northern Ireland couldn’t follow suit.

“The public are growing increasingly tired with restrictions given the success of our vaccination programme,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The pattern so far has been that we have lagged behind England but with patience wearing thin I believe the authorities in Northern Ireland would be well advised to follow the Prime Minister’s lead.”

The North Antrim MLA continued: “The emphasis on personal responsibility is welcome.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Johnson of being "reckless" by planning to remove all legal coronavirus restrictions at once and said mask wearing should remain.

Likewise, local politicians have cautioned against Northern Ireland ditching restrictions in line with England so quickly. People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll insisted it was a risky move.

“One lesson that should be front and centre of all decision makers’ minds here is that simply following Boris Johnson and his ministers at all costs, with no questions asked, has been a very dangerous strategy right throughout the pandemic,” he said.

“No doubt people want a return to ‘normality’ as soon as possible but this virus is still circulating and worryingly cases are rapidly increasing.

"My fear is that this approach of the British Government could lead to an even greater spike in cases in England and as a result, also here.”

He added: "I would urge extreme caution about what direction the Executive and Health Minister proceeds at this time.”

His concern comes as the Department of Health here yesterday reported a 44% rise in people who have tested positive for Covid-19 since June 28. As of yesterday there had been 2,788 positive cases in the previous week – up from 1,567 in the previous seven days.

There were four Covid patients in intensive care, and six hospitals were over capacity. The death toll remained at 2,156.

Chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride said case numbers will increase rapidly as restrictions on movement are eased and the Delta variant is now dominant. But he said the infection rate can be slowed by following public health advice and getting vaccinated.

"We are in the fourth wave of this virus, there is no doubt about that, numbers will increase rapidly and we can do things to slow that, we can continue to follow the public health advice but most importantly now is the time to get the vaccine," Sir Michael said.

Meanwhile, a temporary "vaccine passport" scheme in Northern Ireland has received more than 4,500 applications in its first few days of operation, the Health Minister has told the Assembly.

Robin Swann yesterday said his officials had been working on both a comprehensive certificate system (CCS) and an interim one to allow people from Northern Ireland to travel to countries which require proof of double vaccination for entry.

He said: "The final CCS will take the form of a printed certificate supplemented by a mobile phone app.

"This system will provide internationally accepted proof that either the holder has received both vaccine doses at least two weeks prior to travel or has demonstrated immunity to the virus or has received a negative test in the preceding 72 hours.

"The comprehensive solution is expected to be available before July 19."

Mr Swann added: "A second interim solution was developed in an incredibly short period of time. The service was provided after some countries unilaterally decided to require vaccine proof ahead of the EU vaccine passport scheme becoming fully functional."

Mr Swann said that the interim certificates, which would expire on July 20, were being made available from three vaccination centres. The scheme went live on Friday night. It is free of charge and applicants can apply online by visiting the NI Direct website.

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