Mr Speaker, in compliance with Section 52C(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following Statement on recent decisions taken by the Executive to impact the spread of the Coronavirus epidemic.
These decisions have been taken against the following backdrop:
- Since the beginning of July there has been a gradual but sustained rise in the number of positive Covid-19 tests.
- On Saturday, the Department of Health confirmed a further 319 people in Northern Ireland had tested positive for coronavirus. Since then, a further 407 people have tested positive.
- Saturday was the highest daily tally reported since the pandemic began and brings the total number of confirmed cases reported to 10,949.
- 1,513 cases were diagnosed in the last seven days alone.
- Unfortunately, one death has been reported bringing the death toll to 578.
- There are currently 51 Covid patients in hospitals across Northern Ireland, with six in intensive care and there are outbreaks of the virus in 28 care homes.
Evidence we have from the Test, Trace, Protect programme tells us that a significant number of the Covid cases are being acquired through household contacts and informal interactions in the community.
Wherever people meet each other, there is a risk of transmission.
This is why the Executive agreed that restrictions in domestic settings should be introduced in order to reduce community transmission occurring through indoor social gatherings in households. Initially this was applied on a postcode basis but now applies to all areas of Northern Ireland.
These restrictions are a necessary and proportionate approach to address the increasing number of Covid cases that we have witnessed since early July, and which have accelerated over the past weeks.
The positive case numbers are of serious concern to the Executive, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser. The numbers themselves, and the rate at which cases are doubling should be a concern to all parts of our society including the business sector and citizens.
If allowed to continue this will inevitably lead to an increase in hospital admissions and deaths – that is something we must try to minimise.
Building on the measures already in place, the Executive agreed last Thursday that a closing time of 11.00pm should be applied to the hospitality sector. This will come into effect from midnight on Wednesday 30 September 2020, and apply to those parts of the hospitality sectors subject to current regulations, including pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes as well as hotel and guest house bars.
No alcohol or food will be served after 10.30pm and all customers must leave by 11.00pm. In practice this brings the normal closing times forward by half an hour and there will be no late licences.
The intention behind the earlier closing time is that socialising later in the evening is considered to increase the risk of virus spreading because people adhere to the rules less strictly after consuming alcohol and in venues where they are used to mixing freely.
There can be no exceptions to this, so weddings and other important social events will also be required to comply.
From last Thursday, 24 September, all businesses that serve food or drink in England, Scotland and Wales have been required to shut at 10 o’clock every night under new measures that were introduced to control the rising rate of coronavirus.
This includes pubs, restaurants, cafes, social clubs, casinos and bingo halls.
The 10.00pm closing that had initially been imposed in certain areas in England then became a nation-wide restriction. That is because of the need to ask people to further limit their social interactions.
Sales of alcohol from off-licences and supermarkets in Northern Ireland already stop at 11.00pm. This will help ensure a consistent approach in border areas.
Some will make the point that pubs and bars closing at 11.00pm will drive people to house parties and we recognise this risk. However, house parties and gatherings in our homes are illegal - the restrictions already in place ban people from more than one household to be in a private dwelling or more than six people from no more than two households to be in a private garden.
The totality of the arrangements will be subject to enforcement. We do not want to go there, we would prefer that everyone works with us to impact the spread of the virus.
But enforcement has a role, and we are working closely with the PSNI and local government to understand the issues from their perspectives and also the importance of community responses. Junior Ministers are working closely with PSNI and local government, and we will be looking at the fines levels we have here as a matter of priority.
It is essential that business owners and members of the public adhere to these restrictions, which will help reduce the length of time the restrictions will need to be retained.
We want to avoid more stringent measures. But we have been clear from the outset of this pandemic that we will put restrictions in place if we have to. We will do so carefully and with great thought to the social and economic impacts, but if we need to act, we will.
As always, we must continue to be extremely careful in all aspects of our lives, particularly for the medically vulnerable members of our community. We appreciate this a difficult time for everyone and yet more restrictions are not what any of us want.
We cannot emphasise enough that the regulations are intended to protect you, to protect other people, to reduce the spread of infection and to bring the epidemic to an end as soon as possible.
We assure you the restrictions will be kept under constant review and measures will be removed if possible but, equally, they may be added to if necessary.
We can all help curb the spread of the virus by:
- maintaining social distancing;
- maintaining good hand and respiratory hygiene;
- wearing face coverings;
- Self-isolating immediately if we experience any symptoms, including a new persistent cough, a fever or a loss or change of smell or taste;
- Seeking a test if we experience any of these symptoms;
- downloading the StopCovid NI app; and
- complying with the restrictions in place
Our message is simple - if each and every one of us does our bit we will help bring the epidemic to an end sooner rather than later and by doing that, save lives.
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