Covid-19. Justice minister is concerned about face-covering plans

Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption

Naomi Long claims it is inappropriate for her department overseeing compliance with face-covering requirements

BBC News NI has learned that Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister raised concerns regarding a proposal to her Department to take the “lead” in monitoring compliance with face covers to combat Covid-19.

According to a health paper, Naomi Long should be in charge of plans for increasing compliance above 80%.

The proposal she made was “entirely inappropriate”, said She.

The document will be discussed by ministers on Monday.

The Department of Health advised last week that, if cases do not decrease in the coming three weeks, more severe restrictions may be necessary before Christmas.

Officials from the health sector expressed concern about falling compliance with mandatory facial coverings.

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Customers are required to wear the shoes in stores, public transport, and indoors since summer 2020, unless exempted.

Robin Swann (Health Minister) circulated to executive ministers last Wednesday a document containing a variety of suggestions aimed at decreasing the transmission of the disease.

He suggested in it that Mrs Long “takes the lead in pursuing minimum 80% compliance to the face coverings requirements to gather evidence for the executive, and report on the number fixed penalty notices imposed”.

The justice minister responded by saying she doesn’t understand why Swann suggested that she assume responsibility.

She wrote to Mr Swann and was seen by BBC News NI. In it, she stated that a variety of agencies had been involved in monitoring compliance with Covid-19, including the Police Service of Northern Ireland, (PSNI) and councils.

She added that “The PSNI will also rightly enforce only where it is necessary.”

Long cautioned that it was important for the executive to recognize the larger impact of expecting the PSNI, which is expected to alter its enforcement approach.

“We’ve seen the confidence of the public in the police service be affected by those who believe that the PSNI takes a disproportional approach to their policing.”

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As the business obligation was to ensure compliance, she said that the police were only there as a final measure.

She stated that the idea compliance could be solely, or even primary, an issue for justice was fundamentally flawed. As has been shown by decisions made by the executive before it.

Long also stated she believes that a key problem in improving compliance is the lack of consistency across executive messaging.

She suggested ministers should agree to several “key messages on public health advice” at Monday’s executive session and “relentlessly promote” them.

Swann advised those who were working remotely during last year’s pandemic to return home on Thursday.

In his document, he suggested that businesses should have a rating of Covid compliance based on their “scores at the doors”.

The executive must agree first on the decision to increase mitigations.

According to health officials, the proposal could reduce the spread of the virus.

Ministers from Stormont have stated that they don’t want to be forced to implement tougher mitigations to protect trade.

Already, they have committed to establishing proof of Covid status within certain sectors. These will take effect from 13 December.


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