I want to lift Covid restrictions but don’t know if I can: Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann insists he is prepared to press ahead with the removal of coroanvirus restrictions, despite the political crisis at Stormont sparked by DUP opposition to the NI Protocol.

Mr Swann, in a Stormont press conference yesterday afternoon, confirmed that he is still seeking legal guidance on how to replace the remaining restrictions with guidance and advice in light of the resignation of DUP First Minister Paul Givan.

He also confirmed that it had been his intention to bring a recommendation on removing restrictions to the Stormont Executive this week.

The Executive had been due to meet on Thursday in what Mr Swann had billed as a “key date”, prior to the resignation of Mr Givan.

Health Minister Robin Swann speaking at a press conference at Stormont on Monday February 7, 2022

The Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has also been removed from her post following the resignation her DUP counterpart in protest at the customs border placed between Northern Ireland and Great Britain following the UK’s exit from the European Union.

In a statement issued by his party last week, Mr Swann confirmed that he had sought legal advice on the removal of Covid restrictions.

“I’m not prepared to allow a failure of politics to get in the way of lifting now unnecessary restrictions,” Mr Swann said at yesterday’s press conference.

“I can confirm it was my intention to go to the Executive this week to advocate a significant removal of Covid restrictions.

“I am now seeking that legal guidance on how I myself can replace the bulk of the remaining restrictions, if not all of them, with clear guidance and advice.

“When we had an Executive, ministers always said we wouldn’t retain restrictions for a day longer than necessary, so that same logic should still apply.”

Mr Swann said that removing the remaining Covid restrictions did not mean a “free for all”.

He said: “While we must move forward carefully, we can’t stay locked in emergency restrictions forever.

“We need to start getting normal back.

“That means moving cautiously out of the legal phase of the Covid response.

“I hope this will be a permanent decision.

“I am persuaded that having reviewed the data and consulted with senior medics and scientists within my department, the time to take this step is this week.”

Remaining Covid measures in Northern Ireland include the legal duty on retail to take reasonable measures to reduce the risk of transmission and a legal requirement to wear face coverings and the associated duty on businesses to take reasonable measures to ensure compliance.

Mr Swann said the process of removing remaining restrictions had been complicated by not having an Executive.

He said: “The legal situation has been complicated by the actions of last week, the Covid regulations have always been collective Executive regulations.

“And now we have no Executive.

“So this is not necessarily straightforward.

“But the people of Northern Ireland deserve a clear path ahead.

“That’s what I am continuing to work to provide.”

Mr Swann said it was approaching the second anniversary of the very first coronavirus case in Northern Ireland.

“I don’t believe any of us on that day in February 2020 could have imagined how long the unfolding crisis would last or the scale of the toll it would take.

“Two years on, a cautious optimism is growing.

“While the pandemic is certainly not over, we are in a better place.

“From knowing very little about the virus, we now have rapid tests and a range of antibody and antiviral treatments.

“And of course we’ve also had the game changer of the vaccination programme.

“We can dare to start looking ahead and planning ahead.

“We can hope.”

Meanwhile, two further people who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 have died in Northern Ireland, the Department of Health said.

Another 3,105 confirmed cases of the virus have also been notified in the last 24-hour reporting period.

Yesterday morning, there were 362 Covid-19 inpatients in hospital, with 14 in intensive care.