Executive ministers split over need for mandatory ‘vaccine passports’ ahead of winter NHS pressures

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has described a decision by DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers not to insert mandatory ‘vaccine passports’ into Covid regulations as “astounding and reckless” in light of predicted winter pressures on health services.

Monday, 27th September 2021, 9:48 pm
Updated Monday, 27th September 2021, 9:55 pm
The Stormont Executive met tonight

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has described a decision by DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers not to insert mandatory ‘vaccine passports’ into Covid regulations as “astounding and reckless” in light of predicted winter pressures on health services.

Ministers in a statement tonight “advised” that proof of vaccination, a clear Covid test or proof of immunity be provided to access theatres, concert halls and cinemas, but did not make it a legal requirement.

They removed the legal requirement to socially distance in retail and indoor visitor attractions.

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They also removed the one metre rule from indoor seated venues such as theatres, concert halls and cinemas. “For this sector we advise that additional mitigating measures are utilised, including proof of being fully vaccinated, or proof of a negative lateral flow rapid test, or proof of natural immunity from a positive PCR test undertaken in the previous 30-180 days,” ministers said in a statement.

However the SDLP objected that this was not a strong enough action, claiming that it only advises businesses to “opt in” to the policy of asking patrons for Covid certification - but does not make it a mandatory legal requirement.

SDLP leader Mr Eastwood has been calling on the First and Deputy Ministers to take “decisive action” to implement a vaccine certification programme for hospitality and entertainment venues, arguing that the primary goal must be protecting the health service from becoming overwhelmed as additional winter pressures mount.

The party said that at the Executive tonight, SDLP Minister Nichola Mallon argued against a proposal from the DUP and Sinn Féin which will see social distancing measures dropped in some venues without the requirement of vaccine certification.

The SDLP Minister proposed Covid ‘vaccines passports’ be introduced by regulation but was blocked in the executive vote.

Colum Eastwood MP said: “This is a moment for political leadership. The warnings from senior health service professionals could not be starker. Unless rates of transmission fall, we are looking at a bleak winter scenario that will push health workers beyond their limits and see some emergency services collapse. We cannot allow that to happen.

“The choice we have right now is to increase vaccinations or introduce restrictions. In a few weeks, we won’t have any choice at all. This was the moment to act. The evidence from other regions that have implemented vaccine certification programmes is that it drives vaccine uptake, particularly in younger age groups. This is uncomfortable, no one wants to be in this situation but if this will save lives and protect our health service then of course we should do it and do it quickly.

“It is astounding and reckless that DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers have kicked the can down the road instead of bringing certainty and clarity. Their decision not to put vaccine certifications in regulation but instead to remove social distancing requirements and advise businesses to opt in is totally irresponsible. Not only does this offer no incentive for vaccination it puts the onus entirely on businesses themselves. This is a cop out and another failure of leadership.”

The PA news agency reported that Minister Mallon opposed the move to only “advise” that indoor seated venues ask for Covid certification or negative lateral flow test result or proof of infection in the last six months.

Ms Mallon proposed that the steps should be made mandatory. Alliance Justice Minister Naomi Long supported her proposal but the other Executive ministers, including Health Minister Robin Swann, voted against it.

When it came to the vote on the original proposal to make the recommendations in guidance only, Ms Mallon voted against and Ms Long abstained.

Earlier on Monday, Economy Minister Gordon Lyons expressed doubt about the use of mandatory vaccine passports in Northern Ireland.

His comments suggest the issue may become a point of friction for parties within the Executive, given Sinn Fein has made clear it would be open to vaccine certification if the move was recommended by health chiefs.

The SDLP last week called for the introduction of a scheme as a way to boost vaccination rates.

While authorities in England have shelved plans for vaccine passports, the administrations in Scotland and Wales are introducing schemes next month.

A scheme to gain entry to pubs and restaurants in the Irish Republic, which has been credited with driving up vaccination rates among young people, is set to end on October 22.

Mr Lyons said he wanted to see social distancing measures removed as soon as possible, because of decreasing Covid transmission and hospital admission rates in Northern Ireland.

But he said did not believe vaccine certification was an appropriate way to mitigate the removal of the restriction.

“I don’t think that we are in that space anymore,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

“We’ve almost got 90% of our adult population vaccinated and you are now seeing the impact that that is having on the rate of transmission and hospitalisations as well.”

Mr Lyons said the scheme would present “legal and human rights issues”.

Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has also raised human rights concerns about such an initiative.

However, last week she suggested she would still be “very open” to a passport scheme if it could be demonstrated it could contribute to the “greater good” of tackling the spread of Covid-19.

Four further deaths of patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 were reported in Northern Ireland on Monday, along with 903 new confirmed cases of the virus.

On Monday morning, there were 345 Covid-19 patients in hospital, with 28 in intensive care.