Northern Ireland's COVID-19 certification scheme has become legally enforceable.
As reported by rte.ie, the scheme requiring people to prove COVID-19 status to gain entry to a range of hospitality venues and large attendance events was introduced last month with a two-week grace period to allow businesses to adjust to the new requirements.
Patrons wishing to access nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and other licensed premises will reportedly need to provide proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow test result or evidence of a previous COVID-19 infection.
The same rules will reportedly apply for entry to large indoor and outdoor events, such as concerts and sporting events.
Following news from yesterday (Monday December 13) that the regulations that give legal weight to the new system would be subject to a vote in the Stormont Assembly yesterday, Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill has reportedly warned that Northern Ireland is set to be overwhelmed by the Omicron variant of COVID-19 "very, very soon".
O'Neill reportedly said there were 10 confirmed cases of the new strain in Northern Ireland.
She reportedly also hit out at the DUP, describing the party as "absolutely out of kilter with the rest of the Assembly who are behind the public health message".
Earlier, First Minister Paul Givan reportedly urged take-up of the coronavirus vaccine boosters, warning that a "storm coming our way".
However, his party has reportedly opposed COVID-19 certification for entering some hospitality venues.
There was reportedly a protest at Stormont yesterday by those opposed to the scheme.
Former DUP economy minister Paul Frew, who is reportedly a vocal critic of mandatory certification, was reportedly among a number of party members who met with the protesters outside Parliament Buildings.
He reportedly suggested the scheme could be halted by way of legal challenge.
"There are going to be legal challenges, there is no doubt about that and that's where it might be stopped," he reportedly told demonstrators. "I hear you 100%, and I'm with you, but this will only be tested legally."
Speaking in the Assembly chamber, O'Neill reportedly called for parties to unite.
"If ever there was a time for a united front on the public health message, it's today because we're facing into a very, very difficult period in the weeks ahead where we see this new variant now coming on stream, we're probably about two weeks behind what's happening in England and Scotland and they are getting into very difficult territory," she reportedly told MLAs during Executive Office questions. "We are going to be overwhelmed with this new variant very, very soon.
"My priority is to keep businesses open and safe. I want to keep every door opened but to make sure it's a safe space for people to enter."
O'Neill reportedly also said she had spent the weekend speaking to the UK Treasury, making the case "very strongly" for financial support for businesses.
"That's where we would want to be if we could have the resource to be able to do that," she reportedly added.
The regulations behind Northern Ireland's COVID-19 certification were reportedly debated for several hours in the Assembly yesterday, but no vote was reportedly taken.
Speaker Alex Maskey reportedly said the sitting could not be extended further without the risk of MLAs breaching their own rules.
It is reportedly set to sit at a later date when Health Minister Robin Swann will wind up the debate and members will vote.
While the DUP reportedly opposed the scheme at the Stormont Executive last month, reportedly describing it a distraction that would have marginal effect in suppressing the transmission of COVID-19, the coalition's other four parties reportedly supported it.
If the parties vote the same way in the Assembly, the regulations should reportedly pass with ease in a straight majority vote.
Ahead of yesterday's debate, Givan reportedly again questioned the evidential basis for mandatory certification.
Under the regulations, businesses that fail to administer the scheme will reportedly face fines ranging from £200 to £10,000.
Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann reportedly appealed to MLAs to back the scheme.
Hospitality Ulster Statements
In a statement published on its website, Hospitality Ulster said, "Hospitality Ulster has said that the latest industry information shows a catastrophic impact to the hospitality sector this Christmas due to a massive number of cancellations and a drop in trade.
"The latest worrying results, gathered over a three week period, show huge losses across all parts of the sector, including food and beverage sales and accommodation. The results come on the day that the COVID passport scheme is imposed on the hospitality sector.
"Industry feedback as part of the survey shows that the majority of business owners feel like they have been made a scapegoat and that scaremongering by Executive Ministers and senior medical representatives has created a situation whereby customers have been scared away from going out this Christmas.
"Survey findings which have been analysed by an independent economist show decline in sales across the hospitality sector over the last three-week period.
"Since the announcement of mandatory 'Proof of COVID Status' the last 3 weeks have witnessed extremely challenging trading conditions, with the majority of members experiencing falling sales.
"Beverage and food sales have been deteriorating weekly with almost all respondents (93% to 95%) saying that sales were down during the week commencing 29th November 2021.
"The share of respondents that have experienced a contraction of more than 50% in sales has been increasing over this short period of time.
"In the week beginning 29th November 2021:
- "1 in 5 members (21%) said that beverage sales had contracted by more than 50%
- "1 in 4 (26%) stated that food sales were down more than 50%
- "Half of those with accommodation (54%) said that accommodation sales had contracted by more than 50% compared to the same week in 2019.
"The survey shows that there have been immediate cancellations of bookings running up to the Christmas period with reference to corporate bookings. This has escalated since.
"There is the continued feeling amongst respondents that the hospitality sector is the 'fall guy'/'scape goat' in spite of all of the investment it has made in measures to make sure that the environment is safe. Some respondents 'don't believe the hospitality sector can recover and will be fundamentally changed.'
"There is mention of 'job cuts' and 'reduced hours' and the 'challenge of having to pay staff more because they have been hard to come by, then all of a sudden find business dropping away.'
"Colin Neill, Chief Executive, Hospitality Ulster, said, 'Today the Assembly is going to be talking about COVID regulations for hours, all day in fact, and we would appeal to our elected representatives who will be in the chamber to think about the hundreds of businesses and thousands of staff in the hospitality sector who are facing business failure and the loss of their jobs if things don't improve.
"'Business owners are seeing sustained contraction of sales, forced by drop in footfall and immediate cancellations and feel like they have been left high and dry after being heaped with the responsibility of the COVID Passport scheme. Even though penalties for the scheme kicks in from today, we are still yet to see the economic impact assessment which has led to this decision. Where is the package of financial support? Is the hospitality sector being forced to carry the can for this Executive decision?
"'After two weeks of developing operational procedures and training of staff for 'Proof of COVID Status', on the weekend before penalties begin, the legislation gets changed from 'check as soon as reasonably possible' to 'check at point of entry' - a change that will be unworkable for many businesses that operate a counter service business model, or venues that have several entrances.
"'Most businesses do not have door staff and cannot afford to employ them even if they could find them. Where is the collaborative working? Where is the common sense approach?
"'The Executive and the wider Assembly need to understand that repeated additional COVID measures are costing businesses in the hospitality sector and we are at breaking point. This coupled with a highly confusing message from government is destroying our industry.
"'Hospitality businesses are the sacrificial lamb. If our staff are to go without wages, the Executive should at least be honest and tell us that!'
"In a separate statement published on its website, Hospitality Ulster also said, "UPDATE ON PROOF OF COVID STATUS
"On the weekend before penalties begin, the legislation has changed from 'check as soon as reasonably possible' to 'check at point of entry' - a change that will be unworkable for many businesses that operate a counter service business model, or venues that have several entrances.
"Having strongly made this point to The Executive Office Taskforce and following two meetings with the Executive Task Force, they are still unable to give further guidance as to how this requirement will be implemented.
"On the issue of customers entering premises to purchase takeaway, there is no requirement to check COVID Status, but we would advise that premises have a clearly designated 'takeaway' area - and that customers are not seated or allowed to consume any food or beverage whilst waiting.
"On proof of exemption, we are aware that these have not yet been issued and premises are left with no option but to accept 'verbal' confirmation.
"We have a further meeting with TEO Taskforce later today to try and resolve the remaining issues and we will issue updated guidance ASAP!
"LIVE ONLINE INDUSTRY UPDATE
"HU is holding a live online industry update TOMORROW (Tuesday 14th December) at 10:00am, where you can hear up to the minute information and ask questions directly to the Hospitality Ulster team on COVID passes and more.
"Tony O'Neill - HU Chair
"Stephen Magorrian - HU Vice Chair
"Colin Neill - HU CEO
"This FREE live online webinar is open to all hospitality businesses.
"[Go to https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/live-online-industry-update-plus-qa-tickets-225227360097] TO REGISTER NOW".
© 2021 Hospitality Ireland – your source for the latest industry news. Article by Dave Simpson. Click subscribe to sign up for the Hospitality Ireland print edition.