Executive votes against banning travel between NI and rest of UK

Stormont ministers are to issue guidance advising against non-essential travel between Northern Ireland and both Britain and the Republic of Ireland after a bid for an outright ban on GB travel was voted down.

People arriving in Northern Ireland will also be advised to self-isolate for ten days.

A Sinn Féin proposal for a temporary prohibition on travel between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales was defeated during an emergency late night virtual executive meeting.

The meeting was convened at short notice after health minister Robin Swann circulated a paper responding to the emergence of the Covid-19 variant in which he recommended issuing guidance against all but essential travel rather than proceeding to an immediate ban.

The DUP, UUP and Alliance opposed the Sinn Féin proposal while the SDLP supported it.

After that was rejected, ministers then agreed Mr Swann's recommendations without the need for a formal vote.

The paper tabled by the health minister also called for further preparatory work to examine legal issues around the introduction of any travel ban.

He drew up the proposals following consultation with the attorney general on the issue of travel restrictions.

After the meeting, Mr Swann tweeted that he was pleased the Executive had reached an agreement and that more work would be needed before a travel ban was considered.

In his paper the Health Minister had cautioned executive ministers that a travel ban could cut vital supply lines to Northern Ireland and leave the executive facing hefty compensation claims.

It also warned a prohibition could also be challenged on human rights grounds if there was no evidence to demonstrate it was proportionate.

The minister said it was believed the new variant of Covid was already in Northern Ireland and he said it was "almost inevitable" it was in the Republic of Ireland.

He also warned of the risk of travellers using Northern Ireland as "gateway" to the Irish Republic as a result of the ban on Irish/UK flights.

Mr Swann told colleagues the issues around restricting travel were complex and warranted more consideration rather than "bluntly" moving to an outright ban.

The paper said the variant was unlikely to be easily detected in the Republic as "little viral sequencing is performed".

In that context, the paper flagged the "rapid upward trajectory" in cases south of the border, noting it was a similar trajectory to the parts of Britain where the new variant was rife.

The paper highlighted the relatively few number of Covid-19 cases in Northern Ireland linked to travel from elsewhere in the UK. In the last two weeks, they accounted for 23 of around 6,000 new cases.

The paper then laid out the opinion of chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride and chief scientific officer Professor Ian Young.

It said the experts' advice was:

  • The absolute risk of travellers from the rest of UK having Covid is low, and even lower for the new variant.

  • There would be merit in limiting or temporarily banning travel if the variant was not present in Northern Ireland.

  • In the absence of definite evidence a precautionary approach is advised, including possible consideration of limiting travel from the Republic of Ireland given the current disease trajectory and low level of genotype sequencing.

  • There are significant logistical issues around implementing a ban, and several "unintended consequences", he said, adding: "Furthermore, a decision to impose a ban on entry from GB and/or ROI will have human rights implications.

  • "It will therefore be important to have evidence that this measure is proportionate to the risk that the additional measures are intended to mitigate."

Mr Swann warned that banning travel could have "serious adverse implications for the financial viability" of aircraft and ferry routes.

He said this could have "profound implications" on supply chains of essential goods and supplies.

The minister said the result could see the executive subsidising those routes to keep them going.

He also raised the prospect of the executive facing compensation claims from those whose travel plans would be cancelled.

Mr Swann said his view was that executive should issue guidance advising against all but essential travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain/Irish Republic with immediate effect.

He also recommended that all new arrivals into the region be asked to self-isolate for 10 days.

The minister said it was important to provide clarity on what is meant by "essential".

He said it should cater for Northern Ireland residents currently outside the jurisdiction who want to return home.

The minister also recommended that preparatory work be undertaken on the form of any necessary changes to legislation that would be required to introduce a ban, if it was decided one was ultimately needed.

Ahead of the executive convening, Sinn Féin Finance Minister Conor Murphy wrote to Mr Swann expressing "dismay and astonishment" that he was not moving immediately to instigate a ban on travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Mr Murphy called on Mr Swann to reconsider the position he had set out in his paper.

Ministers have been debating the possibility of amending the 1967 Public Health Act to introduce short-term travel restrictions.

While Sinn Féin supports the move, the DUP insists that UK internal travel is already prohibited from Tier 4 areas in England, so there is no need for added Stormont legislation to enforce that.

Earlier on Monday, DUP First Minister Arlene Foster warned of serious ramifications if a travel ban was introduced.

Mrs Foster said the new strain of coronavirus has probably already arrived and warned that supply chains could be endangered by restricting travel.

"It is a very simplistic thing to say, 'let's close Northern Ireland off'," she said.

"That has ramifications and as First Minister I have to take all those into account as well.

"I have always tried to be proportionate and balanced in everything that I have done through this crisis, and I am going to continue to do that."

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