Stormont ministers agree to drop the use of vaccine passports in hospitality settings from Wednesday.
Stormont ministers have agreed to drop the use of vaccine passports in hospitality settings from midday on Wednesday.
The move is part of several relaxations to Northern Ireland’s Covid rules.
It means proof of Covid status in pubs, restaurants and cinemas will no longer be legally required from 26 January.
The system will remain in place for nightclubs, and indoor unseated and partially seated events with 500 or more people.
Ministers have also agreed to remove rules on table service in hospitality businesses and the so-called “rule of six” per table from midday on Friday.
It is understood hospitality businesses will still be advised in guidance to retain use of Covid certification.
The guidance limit of three households allowed to meet indoors in a private home is also to be removed from Friday, under the changes.
Under the plan, nightclubs have also been given the green light to reopen from Wednesday 26 January with dancing and indoor standing events permitted again.
Stormont’s First Minister Paul Givan described the changes as a “step in the right direction” and said they reflected the changing circumstances in Northern Ireland.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it was “clear we were past the peak” in terms of case numbers and hospital occupancy.
She urged the public to continue to be cautious and not be complacent.
The restrictions came into place just after Christmas in a bid to manage a surge in cases of the Omicron variant.
Existing measures ‘sufficient’
Proof of Covid certification has been legally required in certain settings in Northern Ireland since 13 December, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) the only party in the executive opposed to its use.
Ministers met to agree the changes, with the first and deputy first ministers chairing the meeting virtually while on a visit to the north-west on Thursday.
Ministers had been indicating they hoped to be able to announce a further easing of restrictions, with the Omicron variant thought to have reached a peak of hospital admissions a few days ago.
Stormont ministers were advised that there may be a “secondary peak” in cases in the next two weeks as a result of further spread in school age children.
However the advice from health officials also states that it is likely current measures will be “sufficient” to manage hospital admissions and that ICU admissions and deaths are not expected to rise significantly, due to Omicron being less severe than previous variants.
There’s no doubt that we are closer to the end of this pandemic than the beginning and that, without question, is a good place to be.
While it was science, and chiefly the vaccination programme, that got us to this point, so did a huge amount of sacrifice and effort.
That’s why some experts are urging caution and stressing that it’s not over yet.
While easing of restrictions is welcomed, infection levels are still at a stage to cause much concern.
In fact, while infections have fallen, they’re still well above what they were at the height of the peak last winter – the big difference is that Omicron is impacting much less severely.
The executive has been warned that in the next fortnight, there could be a secondary peak in cases as a result of further spread among children.
Many of those testing positive are now young children and, while not severely affected, they are off school and require parents to stay off work to be with them.
It’s an indirect impact which is causing huge staff absences across the public sector.
As always, it’s how hospitals are coping which influences what happens next.
While the virus is causing fewer admissions, there remain more than 400 patients affected by Covid who are in hospital beds.
That number equates to a small hospital and means others, perhaps on waiting lists, can’t be admitted for treatment.
Only this week Belfast Trust warned that in order to cope they’d have to delay some services and redeploy staff.
Clearly, as in other jurisdictions, politics is influencing what decisions are being taken.
It’s a delicate and difficult balance.
Spring, however is looking brighter.
Mr Givan also said the next executive meeting on 10 February would be an “important one” when other measures would be discussed, adding he wanted to see movement on the wearing of face masks.
The Stormont executive as a whole had to agree the latest proposed relaxations, with the first and deputy first ministers chairing the meeting virtually while on a visit to the north west.
Ministers have been indicating they hoped to be able to announce a further easing of restrictions, with the Omicron variant thought to have reached a peak of hospital admissions a few days ago.
Stormont ministers have been advised there may be a “secondary peak” in cases in the next two weeks as a result of further spread in school-age children.
However the advice from health officials also states it is likely current measures will be “sufficient” to manage hospital admissions and intensive care admissions, and deaths are not expected to rise significantly due to Omicron being less severe than previous variants.
Fresh curbs were introduced in December amid fears over the Omicron variant of the virus.
Ken Sharpe, owner of Salty Dog hotel and restaurant in Bangor, said his turnover in December was down by 25% compared to two years ago.
He told Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme he would like to see the current restrictions scrapped.
“It was the introduction of Covid certification and other restrictions that really caused us to crash,” he said.
“The Covid certification process and the restriction on table numbers and being restricted to table service, we’d like to see that go.”
Scotland, England and Wales have already announced some easing of restrictions.
The deputy first minister also emphasised the importance of vaccinations.
She encouraged anyone eligible for a booster jab who had not yet received one to come forward as soon as possible.
On Wednesday the Department of Health in Northern Ireland recorded six Covid-19 related deaths, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 3,054.
There were 404 patients in hospital with Covid-19 and 25 in intensive care units.
A number of Covid measures in England are to end from 27 January, with the advice for people to work from home being dropped, along with Covid passports and the requirement to wear a face covering in public places.
In Scotland rules on table service in hospitality venues will be lifted from Monday, when nightclubs will also be allowed to reopen, while in Wales a three-week road map for scrapping restrictions has been set out.
The Republic of Ireland’s government has suggested changes are likely to its restrictions too, including large crowds returning to outdoor events.