Health Minister Robin Swann will lay out stringent new proposals tomorrow aimed at tackling a surge in Covid-19 cases.
The Sunday Independent can reveal these will include twice-weekly tests for school staff and post-primary students.
There will be, ‘scores on the doors’ for businesses’ compliance to guidelines and an increase in fining people for not wearing masks.
The moves come as the number of new positive cases in Northern Ireland has risen by 23pc in the last week — principally in the 11-15 age bracket — with a 19pc increase in hospital admissions.
During tomorrow’s meeting, Mr Swann will ask colleagues to agree to the new measures following the spike in coronavirus cases over the past two weeks, particularly in the Mid Ulster and Causeway Coast and Glens areas.
“Given the now very high rates of community transmission of the virus, we expect this to worsen in the next few weeks,” he said in a briefing document seen by this newspaper.
Hospitality and retail industries will be reminded of their “responsibility” to collect names and contact details of customers, This is done to facilitate contact tracing in the event of a Covid outbreak. Businesses who do not comply will face penalties.
In the document, Mr Swann will tell colleagues the compliance rates regarding the collection of customer and visitor information in hospitality and other attractions is “patchy at best”.
He will ask Economy Minister Gordon Lyons and Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey to explore retail, hospitality, events and local government “to ensure there are regular visits and checks of premises, and to apply the relevant enforcement notices and penalties for non-compliance”.
Among the most controversial of his proposals is a ‘scores on the doors’ policy which would be similar to the food safety scheme about premises’ compliance with food safety regulations.
In the document, Mr Swann explains that a “similar approach could be developed in respect of Covid-19”, adding that it was explored last year and “dismissed as an option at that time”.
“I look to the Executive’s Covid-19 Taskforce to revisit the idea of the development of a simple Covid score for businesses, based on an assessment of the measures they have in place and compliance with regulations.
"This will help members of the public who wish to take Covid risk into account when deciding which venue to visit.”
Businesses will also be asked to ensure there is adequate ventilation in the workplace in a bid to control the spread of the virus, and the Department of Economy will be asked to “monitor and present evidence of a reduction in attendance at premises and offices” under working from home arrangements.
All school staff and post-primary pupils will be encouraged again to participate in twice-weekly lateral flow testing.
The aim of the programme, Mr Swann explains, is “to identify cases early and isolate them, thereby reducing the risk of spread within the school and beyond.”
He explains that 190,000 staff and students are in the target group. However in the week to November 14, just over 8,000 results relating to individuals who work in or attend a school were reported. Of those, 241 were positive.
“The number of results reported has fallen since September, when there were over 14,000 results reported each week,” he says.
Mr Swann also suggests that the region needs at least 80pc compliance with the wearing of face coverings for this to have the required effect, but compliance is below this level, including on public transport.
He reveals in the document that the PSNI has issued only five penalty notices for failure to wear face coverings since the regulations were introduced in July last year.
He will ask Justice Minister Naomi Long to pursue a minimum of 80pc adherence to the wearing of face coverings requirements and to “gather evidence” of this for the Executive. She will also be expected to report on the number of penalties issued.
Mr Swann will propose that the Executive Covid-19 Taskforce considers how it might enable people to reduce or modify the contact they have with others “during the critical few weeks” between Christmas and New Year.
At a meeting of the Executive last week the Democratic Unionists disagreed with the roll-out of a vaccine passport, leading to Stormont’s biggest party publicly rejecting the proposal.
It is understood that during the frank discussion DUP ministers, including First Minister Paul Givan, asked Mr Swann if a human rights or equality impact assessment had been carried out first.
One Executive source who was privy to the meeting described it as “a complete charade”.
A second Executive source said: “Only in Northern Ireland would you get the First Minister going out five minutes after a meeting to reject a proposal by the Health Minister”.
“Unlike in the Republic, where there is clear and concise messaging, here there is no unity and mixed messaging. It will be too little, too late,” he lamented.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people gathered in Belfast city centre yesterday to march in protest against the planned introduction of Covid-19 certification.
Mr Swann, chief medical officer Michael McBride, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill were among those name-checked during the self-titled ‘freedom’ rally.