Covid Northern Ireland: Executive urges return to working from home as it announces new measures

The Northern Ireland Executive has agreed to push ahead with a series of new Covid measures, issuing fresh work from home guidance just weeks from Christmas.

Ministers agreed the changes in a bid to boost adherence to coronavirus rules in Northern Ireland.

People will be urged to work from home "where possible" and the Executive has tasked its Covid-19 taskforce to examine issues around enforcement of mask-wearing.

It will also look at the potential of setting up a scores-on-the-doors type system to rate businesses on their compliance with rules and mitigations.

Ministers met on Tuesday morning to resume discussions on a range of proposals recommended by Health Minister Robin Swann.

Some revisions to Mr Swann’s original recommendations have been made.

First Minister Paul Givan said the Executive was “very much united” in asking the public to play its part in trying to curb the spread of Covid-19.

"So we appeal again to redouble our efforts when it comes to trying to minimise some of those contacts, whenever it comes to having good ventilation, where you are meeting indoors try to meet outdoors more often," the DUP minister said.

"And we are emphasising that need to work from home where you can and for employers to support that."

Everyone is being urged to play their part to help stop the spread of Covid-19. Credit: Presseye

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said the measures agreed by the Executive were the best chance of avoiding further restrictions in the weeks ahead.

“These are uncertain times, but now is the time for action and if we want to achieve the best possible outcome right now, then now is the time to act," said the Sinn Féin minister.

“This is our best chance of avoiding further restrictions down the line.

"That is why we are asking people to comply. We are reinforcing measures around the work from home messaging if you can."

It comes following warnings a surge in cases was piling pressure on health services.

Health Minister Robin Swann said: “We are seeing what is happening in other countries across Europe, and we think, in regards to these early interactions now, that we can prevent those escalations in cases, also in hospitalisations and the additional pressures coming on our health service as well.

“The time is now to take these actions so that in future we don’t have to take any further action and that is what the Executive has agreed collectively.”

The Executive agreed the measures after talks beginning Monday stretched into a second day.

First Minister Paul Givan tweeted: "The Executive has engaged constructively and agreed a number of measures that will step up our collective efforts against the spread of Covid.

"Whilst there is differences across society on the most effective measures, we can all make a contribution that will help make a difference."

The winter measures came after a Department of Health report (DoH) warned ‘more severe’ restrictions could be needed.

Stormont voted by a majority to introduce Covid passports last week.

The curbs on entry to hospitality venues will kick in from mid-December.

The latest measures, proposed by Health Minister Robin Swann, expand on existing Covid mitigation strategies.

The DoH had warned if case numbers did not drop significantly by early December, more restrictive measures would be needed to stop hospitals becoming overwhelmed.

Health Minister Robin Swann.

Key points you need to know about Northern Ireland's latest Covid measures

The Northern Ireland executive has introduced guidance aimed at curbing the rise in Covid cases

The Executive is asking people to take the steps over the coming weeks, in hopes of avoiding conditions that could risk need for more restrictive measures by Christmas.

Health Minister Robin Swann has warned closure of hospitality outlets at Christmas is “not inevitable”.

What measures were introduced today?

People are being asked to:

  • Work from home where possible

  • Limit social contacts

  • Meet others outdoors where possible

  • Wear a face covering in crowded or indoor settings

  • Keep up hand washing and using sanitiser

Will mask-wearing be enforced?

Leaders have asked the Executive’s Covid Task Force to consider how to enforce face covering rules, and whether a door scoring system could be put in place at businesses noting Covid compliance levels.

Will Christmas be affected?

At this stage, the Executive has not introduced any curbs on gatherings.

However, in measures agreed last week, vaccine pass rules will place limits requiring people to produce Covid certification for entry to hospital venues including pubs, restaurants, and cinemas, and large events.

What are the Covid passport rules?

However retailers are concerned the reintroduction of working from home guidelines could have a "knock-on effect" on high street businesses already reeling from last year’s Christmas shut-downs.

Glyn Roberts, Chief Executive of Retail NI said that while retailers recognise the importance of controlling community transmission and the part everyone must play, local high streets and independent retailers faced further pressure.

“The Christmas period is traditionally one of the busiest periods for many businesses, especially smaller retailers who are the lifeblood of our towns and cities. After the severe impact of the pandemic, these businesses need all the support they can get. If the work-from-home guidance continues, the inevitable loss in trade for our high street retailers will be damaging.”

Retail NI is urging the government to urgently introduce a support package for local traders affected by Tuesday's work from home guidance decision.