Stormont ministers have agreed to end social distancing restrictions for shops, theatres and a number of other indoor settings in Northern Ireland.
At a meeting on Monday evening, ministers decided to remove the one-metre distance requirement for the retail sector, indoor attractions and seated indoor venues.
Ministers have agreed to beef up guidance to business and venue owners to mitigate the impact of allowing a return to full capacity.
Progress made after a constructive meeting of the Executive to remove social distancing requirements for indoor seated venues, indoor visitor attractions and retail settings. Guidance will be provided for measures that can be taken to mitigate risk. Takes affect at 6pm-30th Sept.
— Paul Givan (@paulgivan) September 27, 2021
First Minister Paul Givan tweeted: “Progress made after a constructive meeting of the Executive to remove social distancing requirements for indoor seated venues, indoor visitor attractions and retail settings.
“Guidance will be provided for measures that can be taken to mitigate risk.”
The measures are to take effect from 6pm on Thursday. Further consideration is to be given to the hospitality sector on October 7.
The Executive said that despite the social distancing requirement being removed, “we would ask people to keep close face to face contact to a minimum at all times”.
An Executive statement said: “With furlough due to end in a few days we are very aware of the financial burden on businesses that aren’t yet able to operate at full capacity due to the current social distancing restrictions and the very real concerns of those people whose jobs are at risk.
“The Executive has today considered the existing regulations and has agreed to remove the legal requirement to socially distance in retail and indoor visitor attractions.
The wearing of a face covering remains a legal requirement in these settings.
“We ask that those responsible for these venues, and those attending them, continue to utilise all other available mitigations such as hand sanitising, good ventilation, and using one way systems where possible.
“The wearing of a face covering remains a legal requirement in these settings.
“The Executive has also decided to remove the requirement to socially distance in indoor seated venues such as theatres, concert halls and cinemas.”The advice includes the installation of screening, one-way systems and increased ventilation.
In regard to indoor seated venues, ministers will issue additional guidance to venues advising that they introduce entry policies that require proof of either Covid-19 vaccination, a negative lateral flow test or evidence of a positive PCR test within the previous six months.
SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon opposed the move to issue the guidelines as advisory.
Ms Mallon proposed that the steps were mandatory. She also wanted the measure beefed up to mean patrons had to show vaccine certification and a negative lateral flow test or proof of infection in the last six months.
The PA news agency understands that 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.
The potential for Stormont to introduce mandatory Covid passports for access to venues was not decided at Monday’s virtual meeting.
But it is expected to feature heavily at meetings next week.
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.
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”.
NI #COVID19 data has been updated:
📊903 positive cases and sadly, 4 deaths have been reported in the past 24 hours.
💉2,517,067 vaccines administered in total.
— Department of Health (@healthdpt) September 27, 2021
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.