After the meeting of the Executive’s ministers broke up at around 5pm today, news began to seep out almost immediately that masks were going to be made compulsory.
This was then followed by confirmation by the health minister Robin Swann, in the form of an official statement, welcoming “the decision to make the wearing of face coverings mandatory in shops”.
It even included quotes from the minister himself saying: “Some in the retail industry would prefer a voluntary approach – however, I do not consider this would achieve the necessary compliance.”
This statement was then hastily withdrawn a mere three minutes later.
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The Executive Office (headed by the first and deputy first ministers) then issued its own statement sayingthat things will happen as follows.
They will create a new law giving themselves the power to make face masks compulsory in “a number of indoor settings”.
A publicity campaign will begin to encourage the use of masks, and the Executive will then review the position again in 28 days’ time, on Thusaday, August 20.
The Executive Office statement said: “If there has not been a significant increase in the use of face coverings by this stage, the Executive will implement the power to make this mandatory.”
It was just one of a number of significant changes to the lockdown measures announced today.
Health minister Robin Swann has been a strong proponent of wearing face masks in indoor settings, except those where people are eating, drinking or exercising.
He said last Wednesday that “making it mandatory would provide clarity and reassurance for members of the public”.
Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium – which represents about 90 major retailers including Sainsbury’s, Asda, Argos and B&Q – said: “We hope the public take the opportunity to voluntarily use face coverings so we don’t there is no need to make it mandatory.”
He has strongly argued against making shop staff enforce mask rules, saying there have been “hundreds of incidents of violence and abuse directed at retail staff every day”.
Fellow lobby groups Retail NI and the Belfast Chamber of Commerce (headed by ex-DUP minister Simon Hamilton) also welcomed the voluntary nature of the scheme for the time being.
Here are the other major changes announced, taking effect tomorrow:
l The maximum number of people who can gather in a residential setting will increase from six to 10, with a requirement that they come from no more than four different households (with social distancing still to be observed);
l Overnight stays in a different household are allowed;
l Spectators can attend sports events (with numbers to be determined by the venue;
l Swimming pools can reopen;
l Wet treatments in spas, such as saunas, steam rooms and hydrotherapy pools will be permitted to resume;
l Bowling alleys, funfairs, community centres and halls can reopen.
The government has also set a date of August 10 for the reopening of indoor pubs and bars, selling only drink.
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