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Executive Daily Update: Initiatives to deal with Coronavirus | 2 July 2020

Northern Ireland Executive ministers and their officials have over the past 24 hours been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.

Face coverings are to become mandatory on public transport, and museums and galleries are to reopen under measures ratified by ministers today.

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon confirmed that, in a bid to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission, passengers on bus, train and ferry services will be required from July 10 to wear a nose and mouth covering while in transit, inside stations or terminals. However children under the age of 13 and those unable to wear a face covering for health and medical reasons will be exempt, as will school transport and outdoor areas in ferries where social distancing can be maintained.

Minister Mallon explained:  “As restrictions on our movement are eased, the safety of passengers and staff remains my priority. The evidence suggests that you can reduce the risk of spreading the virus by wearing a face covering. That is why, with the support of my Executive colleagues and the unions, I am announcing that face coverings will be mandatory on public transport, from Friday July 10th.” 

While a face covering offers protection to people in the proximity of the individual wearing it, the Minister said it was vital transport users continued to observe social distancing and follow the advice on regular hand hygiene.

She stressed: “It is also important that you do not get a false sense of security about the level of protection a face covering offers. They are not a substitute for social distancing or good hand hygiene. While I know many will find it challenging in the coming days and weeks to keep up compliance with the rules, I want to applaud the public for their leadership. The public have done the heavy lifting and kept us all safe. You have been the leaders in Northern Ireland fighting Covid-19 and I am asking you to keep it up and we will beat this together. By acting together and thinking of each other we can reduce the risk of transmission.”

Following an update on the transmission rate of Coronavirus, which remains at a low level, the Executive also confirmed:

• Museums and galleries will be permitted to reopen from tomorrow.

• Bookmakers may reopen from tomorrow.

• Bars and restaurants in Private Members’ Clubs and social clubs will be permitted to open from tomorrow, 3 July, to serve food and refreshment in line with the guidelines for the wider hospitality sector.

• The resumption of further close contact service, including massage, spas, tattooing and piercing from Monday, 6 July. (The relaxation pertaining to spas does not apply to thermal treatment aspects of spas, including saunas and steam rooms, hydrotherapy pools and cold and ice rooms.)

All relaxations have been agreed on the basis that all relevant public health guidance and mitigating measures will be implemented in advance of reopening. Economy Minister Diane Dodds announced £2.5 million in funding for projects enabling the public sector to benefit from small business innovation and expertise, including addressing digital challenges related to Covid-19.

A total of 13 projects will receive funding under the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) during 2020/21, which is aimed at companies who can provide solutions to the challenges faced by public bodies.

Minister Dodds said: “SBRI is a highly effective way of using the buying power of the public sector to encourage the development of new innovative solutions. The budget allocation for the Fund in 2020/21 is £2.5 million which will allow two new SBRI projects to start phase one. This is in addition to continuing support for 11 existing projects. Given the unprecedented impacts of Covid-19, the decision has also been taken to ring-fence £0.5 million specifically to address pandemic-related digital challenges.”

Further state care heritage sites are to commence a phased reopening to the public this month, the Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín revealed. Following the decision at the end of May to open to the public most outdoor sites and their car parks, the Minister said visitors will be able to access Dunluce Castle, Grey Abbey and Dundrum Castle from 6 July.

However other sites, such as Carrickfergus Castle and Scrabo Tower, will remain shut under current Executive Covid-19 guidance, while the Department for the Communities’ Historic Environment Division conducts risk assessments that may allow them to reopen by the end of July.

Minister Ní Chuilín said: “We want people to enjoy the history and beauty of our heritage sites, and the outdoors and fresh air. Not only is this positive for our mental health but it will also aid the local economy as we begin to emerge from the effects of Covid-19. However, we continue to live with this virus so I would appeal to visitors to enjoy these attractions responsibly, adhering to social distancing requirements and hygiene advice. At all sites, visitor numbers to sites will be controlled where necessary, card and contactless payment will be encouraged in preference to cash, and stations for hand sanitiser will be erected for the public to use. Please respect the safety of staff and others using the facilities.”

The role of dentists in protecting the public from Covid-19 was singled out for praise today by the Health Minister Robin Swann.

The Minister paid tribute to the profession at a meeting with representatives of the British Dental Association during which he indicated support payments to local dentists would continue for another two months and officials would guarantee the delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) to dental practices.

Minister Swann said: “Like their colleagues across the Health and Social Care family, local dentists have continued to play a vital part in protecting the public throughout the first phase of this pandemic. They have not only provided advice and face-to-face care to patients in general dental practices but have worked in the Urgent Dental Care centres. I am also very thankful to those dentists who used their expertise when redeployed to care homes and community pharmacies.” 

The Minister acknowledged concerns that restrictions on the provision of non-urgent dental care during the pandemic had placed at risk the financial viability of general dental services.

He added: “It is for this reason that the Financial Support Scheme was established, which has provided £12 million in support payments to local dentists to date. This scheme will continue for a further two months to support the return of non-urgent dental care as the restrictions are lifted. In the interim the department will engage with the profession around the provision of ongoing financial support for the remainder of 2020/21. In addition, I have also instructed officials to examine the best way to provide support in respect of PPE.  I’m delighted to announce that next week the Business Services Organisation will commence deliveries of PPE to dental practices. Dentists will be receiving over three million individual items of PPE in the next few and patients are fully protected.”

With pubs, restaurants and cafés due to reopen in Northern Ireland from tomorrow, Minister Swann also issued an appeal to members of the public to act sensibly and prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Acknowledging tomorrow’s reopening was a landmark moment for many businesses, the Minister insisted: “I am not out to spoil anyone’s enjoyment. However, I have to remind everyone once again that the threat from Covid-19 is still very much with us. We are all familiar with the phrase ‘when the drink’s in, the wit's out’. I hope and trust this will not be the case in Northern Ireland. Please drink and act responsibly and be sensible at all times. Keep sticking to the basics: keep your distance from each other and keep washing your hands. Be aware that alcohol can affect your judgement and alter your behaviour.

“Also, when we meet up with friends, a handshake or a hug is a very natural instinct. We have to fight that instinct for the sake of ourselves and others. By all means enjoy yourselves, but don’t pour your common sense down the drain.”

Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride also urged members of the public to heed the public health advice on alcohol consumption.

Dr McBride noted: “It is estimated that alcohol misuse costs up to £900 million every year, and that almost £250 million of these costs are borne by the Health and Social Care sector. Restrictions have been eased on a number of fronts as a result of the progress we have made in the battle against Covid-19. We must not put that progress at risk. Responsible socialising means remaining vigilant about the virus and continuing to follow the public health advice. Irresponsible drinking can add to the pressures on hospital Emergency Departments and other public services. It can put you and others at risk.”