Stormont ministers urged to back mandatory Covid passports from December 13

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orthern Ireland’s Health Minister has proposed that mandatory Covid-19 passports become enforceable in the region from December 13.

Robin Swann wants fellow Stormont ministers to agree to his proposals for Covid certification in a range of settings at an Executive meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

An accompanying modelling paper from health officials will also warn Executive ministers that passports may not be enough to suppress rapidly increasing Covid case numbers, which have surged 23% in a week, and that “more severe restrictions” may need to be considered in mid-December to avoid hospitals being overwhelmed.

The PA news agency understands that Mr Swann is proposing that passports are used to gain entry to nightclubs, hospitality premises that serve food and or drink, cinemas, theatres and conferences halls.

A Digital Covid Certificate Checker on a mobile phone is used to check the validity of a Digital Covid Passport in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA) / PA Wire

Covid certificates would also be needed to access indoor events with 500 or more attendees where some or all of the audience is not normally seated.

They would be required for outdoor events with 4,000 or more attendees where some or all of the audience is not normally seated.

They would also be mandatory at all events of 10,000 or more attendees whether the audience is seated or not.

Mr Swann is proposing that regulations needed for the law change come into effect on November 29, with a 14-day grace period prior to becoming enforceable on December 13.

While he has asked ministerial colleagues to make a decision at Wednesday’s Executive meeting, in order for the matter to be raised both the DUP and Sinn Fein must first agree to having it placed on the agenda.

The final agenda was yet to be confirmed on Tuesday night.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he had an “open mind” on vaccine certificates (Liam McBurney/PA) / PA Wire

Earlier on Tuesday evening, the leader of the DUP said he had an “open mind” on proposals for mandatory vaccine passports.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the onus was on Mr Swann to demonstrate that introducing compulsory certification would help reduce the pressures on the region’s hospitals and would be a “proportionate and reasonable” measure.

“I’m keeping an open mind, I want to hear what the minister has to say, we want to see the evidence and then we’ll come to a view on it,” said Sir Jeffrey.

The DUP has the power to potentially veto the move and a number of high profile party members have already voiced opposition.

DUP First Minister Paul Givan was scheduled to meet Mr Swann and senior health officials on Tuesday night to discuss the issue.

The powersharing administration currently recommends that nightclubs and other entertainment venues use Covid status checks on entry, but it has stopped short of making it a legal requirement.

Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said her Sinn Fein party would follow the public health advice (Liam McBurney/PA) / PA Wire

The modelling paper states that voluntary uptake of Covid certification by the hospitality sector has been “very low”.

The passport issue has sharply divided the five-party coalition in Belfast with the SDLP and Alliance having been calling for weeks for a mandatory certification system as a way to make venues safer and drive up vaccination rates.

The two main parties in the Executive – the DUP and Sinn Fein – have previously resisted those calls for compulsory passports, instead expressing a preference for a “partnership approach” with the hospitality industry.

However, the intervention by Ulster Unionist minister Mr Swann has shifted the dynamic within the Executive.

Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has made clear her party would follow the advice of health officials on the matter.

The position of the DUP will therefore prove pivotal in determining whether the system will be introduced.

If the DUP opposed the move it could potentially block the proposal by deploying a cross-community voting mechanism.

If the party opposed it but did not deploy that mechanism, the support of the other four Executive parties would be enough to see mandatory passports introduced.

Some prominent DUP members – including MP Sammy Wilson, current Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and former economy minister Paul Frew – have heavily criticised the proposal.

When asked by reporters at Stormont on Tuesday evening whether he would deploy the veto, Sir Jeffrey said he favoured a “consensus approach”.

“I favour a consensus approach and what I want to see is a consensus reached on this,” he said.

“That’s why we will work with the Minister of Health to see if we can come up with solutions that work, solutions that actually deliver in terms of easing the pressures on our hospitals at this time.”

Mr Swann’s proposals come amid escalating pressures on the region’s beleaguered health system.

Covid-19 transmission rates have also soared in recent weeks, particularly among young people.

Making certification a legal entry requirement for hospitality venues has been credited with driving up vaccination rates among young people in the Irish Republic.

The deaths of a further five patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were reported on Tuesday along with another 1,698 positive cases of the virus.

On Tuesday morning, there were 429 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 35 in intensive care.

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