Stormont ministers agree to end social distancing in shops and theatres

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.

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.

The potential for Stormont to introduce mandatory Covid passports for access to venues was not set to be decided at Monday’s virtual meeting.

The paper did not cover the hospitality sector either, which is also subject to the one-metre social distancing rule.

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 Féin 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.

While authorities in England have shelved plans for vaccine passports, the administrations in Scotland and Wales are introducing schemes next month.

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”.

Sinn Féin 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.