Covid-19: Northern Ireland ministers to discuss restrictionson December 22, 2021 at 6:29 am

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Ministers are meeting on Wednesday afternoon as Omicron cases rise in Northern Ireland.

People getting their Covid vaccination

Image source, Liam McBurney/PA Media

Stormont ministers will meet later to discuss the possible reintroduction of Covid restrictions in Northern Ireland.

The vaccination and booster programme have been stepped up in a bid to tackle a rise in cases of the Omicron variant.

The health minister has said the more people that come forward for vaccination, “the less chance there is of severe restrictions”.

Speaking at the opening of the mass vaccination centre at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast on Tuesday, Robin Swann said up to two thirds of Covid-19 patients in hospital aged under-50 are unvaccinated.

While he would not pre-empt any decisions on restrictions, Mr Swann said there would be “additional asks” made of the public following the executive meeting.

“We have to look at pressures on our health service, on our hospital system, but also the pressures on other key infrastructure as well.

“We’ll not boost our way simply out of the Omicron and the threat of what is actually in front of us at this minute in time,” he said.

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

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Analysis box by Jayne McCormack, NI political correspondent

Ministers had hoped it wouldn’t be another Christmas with Covid, but Omicron has meant all of us making changes to our festive traditions.

Today the executive will spell out its plans to get through January, when the peak is likely to occur.

Full closure of most sectors is off the cards without furlough – something the Treasury isn’t for budging on yet.

But the executive could shut nightclubs again, while social distancing requirements and table service-only could be re-imposed on hospitality.

Fresh financial support will also have to be considered.

Whatever measures are agreed today, concerns remain it won’t be enough in what’s becoming an increasingly hard winter.

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Health Minister Robin Swann

Image source, PACEMAKER

BBC News NI understands that ministers have about £190m to work with in terms of additional financial support.

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.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Prison Service has said visits will be “temporarily suspended, pending review” from Monday, 27 December.

It said the move was one of a number of “cautionary steps” to protect prisons from the threat of Covid-19 over the Christmas period.

What steps are the rest of the UK taking?

In England, the prime minister said he could not rule out curbs on activity after Christmas Day.

Boris Johnson said people can go ahead with their Christmas plans but advised them to be cautious and appealed for everyone to avail of a booster vaccination.

Rules regarding self-isolation have changed in England, with the isolation period dropping from 10 days to seven.

However, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland said there was no change in the isolation requirements here, with the situation to be “kept under review”.

Scotland has also announced further restrictions, with Hogmanay events cancelled in Edinburgh and a limit of 500 spectators brought in for football matches.

Social distancing of at least 1m and table service will be reintroduced from 27 December.

In Wales, spectators have been banned from all indoor, outdoor, professional and community sports events from 26 December.

Its cabinet is due to meet on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the possibility of further mitigating measures

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