North will be ‘overwhelmed’ by Omicron ‘very, very soon’ – O’Neill

The deputy First Minister said there were 10 confirmed cases of the new Covid-19 variant on Monday
North will be ‘overwhelmed’ by Omicron ‘very, very soon’ – O’Neill

By Rebecca Black, David Young and Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Northern Ireland is set to be overwhelmed by the Covid-19 variant Omicron “very, very soon”, the deputy First Minister has warned.

Michelle O’Neill said there were 10 confirmed cases of the new Covid-19 variant in the North on Monday.

She also lashed out at the DUP, describing the party as “absolutely out of kilter with the rest of the Assembly who are behind the public health message”.

Earlier First Minister Paul Givan urged take-up of the Covid vaccination booster, warning that a “storm coming our way”.

Coronavirus – Mon Dec 13, 2021
Protesters take part in rally at Stormont after DUP MLA Paul Frew accepted a petition opposing Covid-19 certification scheme (Liam McBurney/PA)

However, his party has opposed Covid certification for entering some hospitality venues.

There was a protest at Stormont earlier by those opposed to the scheme.

Former DUP economy minister Paul Frew, a vocal critic of mandatory certification, was among a number of party members who met with the protesters outside Parliament Buildings.

He suggested the scheme could be halted by way of legal challenge.

“There are going to be legal challenges, there is no doubt about that and that’s where it might be stopped,” he told demonstrators.

“I hear you 100 per cent, and I’m with you, but this will only be tested legally.”

Speaking inside the Assembly chamber, Ms O’Neill called for parties to unite.

“If ever there was a time for a united front on the public health message, it’s today because we’re facing into a very, very difficult period in the weeks ahead where we see this new variant now coming on stream, we’re probably about two weeks behind what’s happening in England and Scotland, and they are getting into very difficult territory,” she told MLAs during Executive Office questions.

“We are going to be overwhelmed with this new variant very, very soon.

“My priority is to keep businesses open and safe. I want to keep every door opened but to make sure it’s a safe space for people to enter.”

Ms O’Neill also said she had spent the weekend speaking to the UK treasury, making the case “very strongly” for financial support for businesses.

“That’s where we would want to be if we could have the resource to be able to do that,” she added.

The vaccine booster programme in the North is being accelerated in response to the threat posed by Omicron and has opened up to all over-30s.

 

Mr Givan said: “You need to make preparation for that because we can see what’s happening in London, where this new variant is now the dominant strain of new cases, that has increased rapidly over the past three to four weeks.

“Similarly in Scotland that is the case as well, and with the movements that take place across the Common Travel Area, we have already a number of small cases in Northern Ireland, but the expectation is the same trajectory that is happening in Great Britain is likely to occur here in Northern Ireland.”

He told BBC Radio Ulster: “That’s why we need to take the steps that we’ve been advocating in terms of the booster jab over the next number of days and that will help prepare our defences for what is going to be needed to meet the challenges that are coming.”

On Monday, Northern Ireland’s Covid certification became legally enforceable.

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 to adjust.

Patrons wishing to enter nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and other licensed premises will need proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test 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 behind the new system will be subject to a vote in the Stormont Assembly on Monday afternoon. It is unlikely 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 it.

If the parties vote the same way in the Assembly, the regulations should pass with ease in a straight majority vote.

Ahead of Monday’s debate, Mr Givan again questioned the evidential basis for mandatory certification.

Under the regulations, businesses that fail to administer the scheme will face fines ranging from £200 to £10,000.

Ahead of the vote, the North's Health Minister Robin Swann appealed to MLAs to back the scheme.

Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Awards
Robin Swann wrote to MLAs at the weekend urging them to back the regulations in the Assembly vote (Liam McBurney/PA)

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” and said opponents should set out 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 (Sir 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 the rationale for certification was “well captured” in the Executive’s autumn/winter Covid-19 contingency plan issued by Mr Givan and Ms 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.”

Coronavirus – Mon Nov 22, 2021
The COVIDCert NI Mobile App (Liam McBurney/PA)

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 a 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.”

The deaths of a further four patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 and another 1,431 cases of the virus were reported by the North's Department of Health on Monday.

On Monday morning there were 309 Covid positive patients in hospital, of whom 32 were in intensive care.

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