By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
Northern Ireland's Health Minister has been accused of questioning the sincerity of the SDLP on their support for a Covid vaccine certification scheme.
Amid fiery exchanges during ministerial question time at Stormont, SDLP MLA Pat Catney called on Robin Swann to “reconsider his comments” after the minister released a statement which said parties advocating a so-called vaccine passport scheme had until recent days “shown no actual interest” in the issue.
Mr Swann responded by stating that he had asked Executive colleagues to bring forward a proposal on a vaccine certification system on April 22nd, and that he could not proceed without their support.
On Monday, Stormont ministers agreed a plan to drop the region's one-metre social distancing requirement across a range of venues, but decided that mitigation measures requiring proof of vaccine for entry to indoor seated venues would be advisory only.
A proposal by SDLP minister Nichola Mallon that Covid vaccine passports for those venues should be compulsory and introduced by way of legal regulation was voted down by the other Executive ministers, including Mr Swann.
Mr Swann later released a statement in which he said it was regrettable the Executive had not yet agreed a policy position.
He added: “It is important to note that the parties that have been most vocal in recent days advocating for the introduction of domestic use certification had until then also shown no actual interest in helping me to pursue a policy decision.”
In the Assembly Mr Catney said: “For the avoidance of doubt, can I ask if you agree with the SDLP proposal for vaccine certification for entertainment and hospitality venues, underpinned in the Covid regulations?”
Mr Swann responded: “I need to be clear that the vote that was taken last night was on a scheme that we don’t have.
“I have been clear since April 22nd where I asked Executive colleagues to bring forward a proposal so that if we ever should need to utilise a Covid domestic certification system that we would have one in place.
“We are still waiting on that conversation and that discussion to be had at the Executive level.
“But I would also say I welcome those parties who have joined me in the last week in actually seeking to develop a Covid certification scheme so that should we need it here in Northern Ireland, we have one ready to deploy and utilise.”
Mr Catney said: “I just hoped that you would have brought that last night to the Executive meeting.
“I have to say that I was extremely disappointed by the statement issued in your name today which appears to me to question the sincerity of my party on this issue and you may want to take this opportunity to reconsider your comments.
“In response to a written question on July 5th, the minister said his department estimated £10.5m was needed for, amongst other things, features to support an Executive policy on domestic use of the Covid passport.
“Can you provide an update on the work that has taken place over the last three months?”
The minister said: “I am not sure where his anger comes from, but I will say, when I saw some commentary last night it reminded me of a line from a poem.
There has been a lot of commentary both from politicians [and] the media who seem to be informed of discussions... which didn’t... actually correspond to any meeting that I was at
“‘Yesterday, upon a stair, I met a man who wasn’t there’.
“There has been a lot of commentary both from politicians [and] the media who seem to be informed of discussions and other things which took place which didn’t reflect or actually correspond to any meeting that I was at.
“The member asks specific to the value that is placed to introduce a domestic vaccine certification system. That is correct.
“The policy lead for the introduction of that certificate leads with the Executive office.
“Until I get a policy direction or the Executive agrees on a policy to actually develop that domestic certification scheme… I cannot proceed and will not proceed with the expense of over £10m in developing one that I don’t have Executive support in actually doing so.”