Torrent of threats and abuse prompts Colin Neill to beef up home security
The head of Hospitality Ulster had to install security measures at his home after he was threatened over his stance on Covid-19.
Colin Neill said he had been accused of murder for speaking out in favour of the reopening of pubs and restaurants.
He added he had been accused of taking bribes after supporting the use of Covid certificates.
The abuse has come in emails and messages on social media, but he has also been verbally abused in the street.
“I just think there are a lot of angry and aggressive people out there,” Mr Neill said.
“I’ve been getting threats when we’ve been trying to open up the industry.
“People have been calling me a murderer, but I’m also getting threats about Covid passports.
“I’ve had someone accuse me of taking brown envelopes over them.
“It’s coming from both sides. I think that if you’re in any way in the public eye at the moment, you can become a target.
“When someone goes to the trouble of emailing you, I think you have to take it seriously.”
Mr Neill was speaking ahead of the reopening of nightclubs on Sunday as the Executive presses ahead with moving out of lockdown restrictions.
He has played a key role in guiding the hospitality industry through the challenges of the pandemic, and warned the issue of Covid passports may result in staff being targeted by angry customers.
The Executive has to date decided against introducing legislation which would require people to show proof of vaccination to enter hospitality premises and events.
Instead, it has “strongly recommended” that venues and event organisers require individuals to demonstrate proof of being fully vaccinated, evidence of a positive PCR test result for Covid-19 within the previous 180 days and following completion of self-isolation, or proof of a negative PCR or lateral flow test taken within the previous 48 hours.
Concerns have been raised that without legislation in place, staff at pubs, clubs and restaurants may be targeted by anti-vaxxers if the venues ask for proof of vaccination, particularly because a number of politicians have been the victim of intimidation campaigns.
Less than a fortnight ago, it emerged that senior politicians, including SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon, had been forced to review their security arrangements after being targeted by Covid-19 conspiracy theorists.
However, Mr Neill said he believed that people working in the hospitality sector would be vulnerable to abuse regardless of whether Covid certificates legislation was put in place.
“We have issued guidance to our members, and we’re encouraging our members to adopt Covid certificates, but at the end of the day, it’s down to each individual business to do a risk assessment,” he stressed.
“Unfortunately, I think that staff will get abuse no matter what.
“People just seem to have become really wound up, and that’s why I have been targeted.
“Quite simply, our members are on the front line, so whether Covid certificates are voluntary or mandatory, staff run the risk of getting abuse.”
A recent survey carried out by the Scottish Hospitality Group found that 79.6pc of respondents had been subjected to abuse since Covid passports became a legal requirement to enter a nightclub in Scotland.
Mr Neill warned of a shortage of properly trained and qualified door staff to ensure the safety of customers.
“It’s up to the venues to employ Security Industry Authority-trained door staff, but the numbers just aren’t there at the moment.
“I don’t think anyone will be able to find extra staff.”
Earlier this month, Health Minister Robin Swann said it was not possible to predict the impact of the reopening of nightclubs on Covid cases, but he referred to clubs as “high risk”.
In guidance to members, Hospitality Ulster said: “It is obvious that the potential for the reintroduction of Covid regulations on our industry remains high, and that individual businesses must continue to demonstrate their commitment to do all they can to limit the spread of the virus.”
Separately, Dr Alan Stout, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee in Northern Ireland, renewed his call for the introduction of Covid-19 certificates.
“I would have been reluctant to call for them in the past for the same reason as other people are reluctant, in that it relates to civil liberties,” he said.
“However, I feel like we have gone through all the education, encouraging and cajoling to increase the number of people who are vaccinated, and we’re still having difficulties.
“We have given people so many opportunities to get vaccinated, and they still aren’t taking it, even though we know they are helping and that they are safe.
“I also think Covid certificates would be useful to the hospitality sector as they will help venues to stay open and they will have confidence that they’re going to remain open.”
A further 1,291 Covid-19 cases were recorded in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, with a seven-day case rate of 8,389.
Another six deaths were reported — one in a person aged between 60 and 79 and five in people aged 80 and over.
The hospital system remained under significant pressure, with 376 Covid-occupied hospital beds, of which 33 were in intensive care.
There were 10 hospitals operating over capacity, with 179 beds over capacity and 250 people awaiting admission to a hospital ward.
According to figures from the Health and Social Care Board, 208 people had been waiting longer than 12 hours in an emergency department at noon on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, 182 operations on patients suspected of having cancer or having been diagnosed with cancer have been cancelled since the beginning of the month due to system pressures.
In separate figures released on Wednesday, the Department of Health estimated that 90.8pc of the local adult population would have tested positive for antibodies against Covid in the week beginning September 27.