By David Young and Jonathan McCambridge, PA
The North’s Covid certification scheme is set to become legally enforceable on Monday.
The scheme requiring people to prove Covid status to gain entry to a range of hospitality venues and larges attendance events was introduced late last month with a two-week grace period to allow businesses adjust to the new requirements.
Patrons wishing to access nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and other licensed premises will need to provide proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test result or evidence of a previous Covid-19 infection.
The same rules will apply for entry to large indoor and outdoor events, such as concerts and sporting events.
The regulations that give legal weight to the new system will be subject to a vote in the Stormont Assembly on Monday afternoon.
It is unlikely that the law changes will be voted down.
While the DUP opposed the scheme at the Stormont Executive last month, branding it a distraction that would have marginal effect in suppressing the transmission of Covid-19, the coalition’s other four parties supported its introduction.
If the parties vote the same way in the Assembly, the regulations should pass with ease in a straight majority vote.
Under the regulations, businesses who repeatedly fail to administer the scheme could face fines of up to £10,000 (€11,700).
Ahead of the Assembly debate, the region's Health Minister Robin Swann appealed to MLAs to back the scheme. He said the emergence of the Omicron variant had strengthened the case for introducing the system.
In a letter sent to all Assembly Members, seen by the PA news agency, Mr Swann called for a “respectful debate” on the measures and said opponents should set out their preferred alternatives.
“While I am confident this measure will be supported by a majority of MLAs, I wanted to underline some key points, not least for those who have still to make up their minds,” he wrote.
“Firstly, it needs to be recognised that Covid certification is a public health measure. By introducing it, the Executive and the Assembly will be following public health advice.
“The chief medical officer (Michael McBride) and chief scientific adviser (Professor Ian Young) have both recommended the initiative to help reduce the risk of infection in higher risk settings.”
Mr Swann added that he believed the rationale for certification was “well captured” in the Executive’s Autumn/Winter Covid-19 contingency plan issued by DUP First Minister Paul Givan and Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill in October.
“In spite of the differences of opinion in the Assembly on this measure, I would appeal for a respectful debate on Monday,” he said.
“The situation we are now facing with Covid demands that of us all.
“Certification is certainly not a panacea and will need to be complemented by widespread adherence to public health advice. It does, however, offer another layer of protection to our citizens.
“I would encourage opponents of the scheme to spell out their preferred alternatives.”
The letter continued: “Simply shouting ‘no’ whilst failing to come forward with any genuine alternatives is not a credible position and it’s not a luxury that I as Minister of Health, or any of us as MLAs, can afford in the midst of public health emergency.
“There have been no easy answers or simple policy choices in this pandemic. That has been the case for governments across the world.
“It does not serve the public interest to be ducking decisions or constantly criticising from the sidelines.
“I commend certification to you as a proportionate policy, that has been introduced in other jurisdictions, and can help keep people safer, business open and support our health service this winter.
“The emerging Omicron threat demonstrates the continued risk from the virus and further strengthens the case for certification.”