Northern Ireland imposes fines up to £5,000 for those breaching social distancing rules

New regulations to enforce social distancing restrictions in Northern Ireland have come into force after being agreed by the Stormont Executive.

Under the powers, fines of up to £5,000 can be handed out to those failing to follow laws aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19.

The regulations, which are in force from 11pm on Saturday, flow from the emergency laws passed at Westminster earlier in the week.

They ban gatherings of more than two people.

They also include a list of which type of business premises should close during the current clampdown on public life, and which can continue operating as an essential service.

Those workplaces that remain open must comply with strict rules on social distancing.

The executive said manufacturing and most of the service sector would not be affected by the closure orders.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 result from the emergency legislation passed at Westminster.

They give the authorities the power to close certain premises and prohibit anyone from leaving home without a reasonable excuse.

The executive faced some criticism for the length of time it has taken to translate the Westminster laws into legally enforceable powers in Northern Ireland.

The deaths of two further people with coronavirus in Northern Ireland were reported on Saturday, taking the region’s death toll to 15.

There were 49 new positive cases of Covid-19 reported on Saturday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in Northern Ireland to 324, according to the Public Health Agency.

Arlene Foster said the regulations were extraordinary powers for extraordinary times Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

Commenting on the introduction of the powers, First Minister Arlene Foster said: “These are extraordinary powers for any Government to have to introduce, but we are living in extraordinary times.

“We are asking the people of Northern Ireland to make fundamental changes to how they live their lives. But we are doing this to keep you safe, to flatten the curve of the Covid-19 infection so that the health service has the capacity to deal with those who need their help the most.

“We know the enormity of what we are asking of the public, but it is proportionate to the threat we all face from this deadly virus. No-one is immune.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “Protecting the public, supporting the health service and saving lives are the priorities for the executive during this crisis.

“Each one of us has a personal responsibility to do everything we can to fight back against Covid-19 for the good of everyone across society. That’s why we are asking everyone to comply with the new measures being introduced today.

“As an executive, we don’t want to get to the stage where people are being fined for being out when they should be at home. But if anyone – even after everything they have heard or seen over the last few weeks – still believes that this does not apply to them, then we will use every power we have to ensure people stay at home so that we save as many lives as we possibly can.”

Health Minister Robin Swann said: “The coronavirus pandemic is affecting every one of us, and every aspect of public life. We think particularly of those who have lost loved ones to this virus.

“These emergency regulations are an essential component of the strategy to tackle the pandemic and will ensure a consistent approach across the four regions of the UK.

“The extreme disruption to normal life would have been unthinkable just a few short weeks ago. It is a price we all have to pay, to protect each other and the health service. Everyone has to take personal responsibility for their actions and to stick rigidly to these restrictions for as long as they are needed. It is a matter of life and death.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood criticised how Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill announced the regulations, without a press conference.

The regulations were announced by way of a press release and accompanying tweet from the Executive Office.

SDLP Colum Eastwood criticised how the regulations were announced Credit: Brian Lawless/PA

The Foyle MP said “huge decisions” need to be managed in a better way than “tweets on a Saturday night”.

“The people of Northern Ireland deserve more than a tweet announcing a lockdown and enforcement powers,” he said.

“These are huge measures and people deserve leadership.

“Our communities have been leading the way, staying home and doing all they can to protect their loved ones. It’s time everyone stepped up.

“Make no mistake, in the next few weeks, people will die. We all have a responsibility to limit the spread to protect as many people as possible.

“This is no time for political games – nor for hiding – the First Minister and deputy First Minister can’t just hold press conferences Monday to Friday during office hours – coronavirus doesn’t wait, it doesn’t take weekends off nor do the thousands of doctors and nurses fighting on the frontline.

“It’s time to get real. Let’s all show leadership – and let’s stay at home and save lives. Those with power and influence need to use it – failure to do so will be unforgivable.”