All remaining Covid-19 legal restrictions in Northern Ireland are to be lifted and replaced by guidance from February 15.
14 February 2022
All remaining Covid-19 legal restrictions in Northern Ireland are to be lifted and replaced by guidance from February 15, the Health Minister has said.
However, Robin Swann urged the public not to “jump the gun” and warned that the pandemic is not over.
The move comes following advice from the chief medical officer in Northern Ireland, Sir Michael McBride.
Earlier, Stormont ministers had given their “unanimous support” to Mr Swann to ease Covid restrictions in Northern Ireland, according to Sinn Fein’s leader in Stormont Michelle O’Neill.
Mr Swann, who has himself tested positive for Covid, was advised last week on the potential legal complications of him replacing Covid regulations with guidance, without the wider endorsement of an executive.
He wrote to other ministers asking for their input and for them to respond by Monday.
The present Covid-19 regulations in Northern Ireland were not due to expire until March 24, but were previously reviewed by the executive every three weeks.
But Northern Ireland has no functioning executive after the DUP removed Paul Givan as first minister, as part of a protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Swann, who is continuing to work from home, had been considering whether removing restrictions would cut across the responsibilities of any other ministers.
In a statement on Monday evening, he said: “Today’s announcement follows consideration of legal advice from the Attorney General and consultation with all ministerial colleagues.
“It moves our response against Covid into a new phase. With the reduced threat from the Omicron variant, we can move away from an emergency and legalistic framework to a new approach where making safer choices is embedded in our daily lives.
“That means all of us continuing to do our best to cut down risks of infection and transmission. It means looking after each other by following the public health guidance.
“It must always be remembered that taking unnecessary risks with Covid may affect people who are particularly vulnerable to the virus.
“So please do not jump the gun and start behaving as if the pandemic is over. That is not the case.”
Mr Swann said that while the Omicron variant was less severe than previous strains, “community transmission remains very high and hospital pressures significant”.
He added: “The most vulnerable as a result of underlying disease remain susceptible to severe illness and it is important that we all do what we can to protect them.”
The Health Minister said that he would keep the current situation under review.
He said: “Coronavirus is likely to stay with us in some form for some time. We cannot maintain emergency restrictions indefinitely. A large part of what we currently do to protect ourselves is already covered by guidance rather than regulations.
“This includes self-isolating when infected and taking lateral flow tests before meeting up with others. The guidance will continue to emphasise all the steps that we should keep taking to protect each other.
“I will, of course, keep the situation on regulations under ongoing and detailed review. We cannot rule out a new variant emerging down the line with new interventions being required. I very much hope that will not be the case.”
Mr Swann said he had been advised by health officials that the decision to ease restrictions would likely not create a major rise in the number of people in intensive care.
Earlier, Ms O’Neill said: “Firstly, let me wish our Health Minister well, he has obviously tested positive for Covid.
“He has a big job ahead of him and I am glad that there has been unanimous support for him to move forward in terms of the Covid restrictions.
“Backed up by the health advice that we are now in a space where hopefully we are able to see the easement of restrictions and a bit more of normality return.
“We will continue to work with the Health Minister in that regard.”
She added: “I believe everybody has now responded to say that they are content that he proceeds, as per the health advice.
“So, I suspect that over the course of today or tomorrow Robin will bring forward those easements.”
Meanwhile, two more people who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 have died in Northern Ireland, the Department of Health said.
Another 2,465 confirmed cases of the virus have also been notified in the last 24-hour reporting period.
On Monday there were 437 Covid-19 in-patients, with 13 in intensive care.