Covid restrictions in Northern Ireland imposed to combat the Omicron variant are being axed from midday today.
Ministers in Stormont agreed to a large-scale easing of curbs, including Covid passes for entry to bars, restaurants and cinemas.
Nightclubs, which were forced to close on Boxing Day, will also reopen later, along with the return of indoor standing events.
But so-called ‘vaccine passports’ will still be required for entry to access nightclubs and large events, while guidance on Covid certification in hospitality settings will be ‘strongly encouraged’.
Social distancing restrictions in offices are being removed, though the Stormont Executive has refused to scrap official WFH guidance, telling people to continue remote working where they can.
Ministers will meet again on February 10 to review the remaining curbs in the UK province – which include compulsory masks, track and trace in hospitality, and the use of Covid certification in nightclubs.
Health officials have advised Stormont that the threat posed by the Omicron variant has subsided. First Minister Paul Givan last week insisted it was his ‘continued view’ that vaccine passports should be scrapped in all settings.
But business leaders have been urging ministers in Northern Ireland to follow the example of devolved governments in Scotland and Wales and lift remaining Covid restrictions.
Revellers drinking at the Harp Bar in Belfast City Centre on January 21, 2022
According to the latest figures from the Department of Health, five further people who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 have died in Northern Ireland. Another 5,023 confirmed cases have also been notified in the last 24-hour reporting period. On Tuesday morning, there were 393 Covid-19 inpatients in hospital, 21 of whom were being treated in ICUs
Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton raged that predictions about how hard Omicron would hit had been ‘wide of the mark’, but warned that the effect of restrictions on businesses was ‘very real’.
Mr Hamilton said: ‘Thankfully, the predictions of experts and some politicians about how hard Omicron would hit us were wide of the mark.
‘The effect on the businesses impacted by the restrictions that were introduced has been very real.’
Last week, Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts urged Stormont to axe Covid curbs and move Northern Ireland towards ‘some sort of normality’.
‘The Executive needs to outline a road map toward the full reopening of our economy and a return to some sort of normality,’ he said.
‘We now need a clear and managed plan to safely remove the Covid-19 restrictions and an immediate move to five days isolation to support our members with staff absences.’
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Northern Ireland needs a ‘clear and managed road map’ for the easing of curbs.
First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill speaking at Ebrington Square in Derry after their Executive meeting, pictured January 20, 2022
This graph shows the cumulative Covid death rate for the four UK nations based on data from the Office for National Statistics, which counts every death certificate that mentions Covid. It reveals that despite its tough curbs Wales has the highest Covid death rate
Pictured above is the death rate over time between England’s four-nations per 100,000 people over the previous seven days, according to the Department of Health. Separate data based on death certificates from the Office for National Statistics shows Wales has the highest cumulative death rate followed by England, Scotland and Northern Ireland
This graph shows the Covid hospitalisation rate across the four nations of the UK during the pandemic. It shows although England’s rose to the highest level during the Omicron wave, it has now started to fall largely following the same trend as the other three nations
Pictured above is the infection rate across the UK’s four nations over time. Despite tougher curbs Northern Ireland has the highest infection rate. England has the second-highest, although it did have the lowest between Christmas and New Year
Students will still wear face masks at schools in Wales until at least February half-term despite country easing curbs and moving towards alert level zero
School pupils in Wales will continue to wear face coverings until at least the February half-term before councils decide locally what measures will remain in place, the Welsh Government has announced.
Education minister Jeremy Miles said the wearing of face coverings had been an ‘important contribution’ to ensuring schools remain safe and the current guidance would remain in place until a review on February 10.
If Covid-19 transmission rates continue to remain low then after the half-term break schools and councils will decide locally what measures will remain in place.
The move comes as Wales moves from alert level two to alert level zero from Friday.
Mr Miles, who was speaking at a Welsh Government briefing, said a final decision will be announced at the next review of the regulations, which is due to take place on February 10.
Meanwhile, fully-vaccinated travellers to Northern Ireland from abroad will no longer have to take Covid tests from February 11.
According to the latest figures from the Department of Health, five further people who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 have died in Northern Ireland. Another 5,023 confirmed cases of the virus have also been notified in the last 24-hour reporting period.
On Tuesday morning, there were 393 Covid-19 inpatients in hospital, 21 of whom were being treated in ICUs.
It come as Northern Ireland’s Education Minister has said she hopes that exams will go ahead as normal later this year.
Michelle McIlveen told Assembly members yesterday it was her plan that state exams would take place in the coming months and any alternative system would resemble the process in 2021.
SDLP MLA Pat Catney had asked the education minister about the potential use of algorithms in the exam process.
Last year was the second year in a row grades issued in Northern Ireland were based on teacher assessments.
The system was used after formal examinations were cancelled again due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the absence of formal exams, grades were instead assessed by teachers and decided through a five-stage process.
This did not include the statistical algorithm used in 2020 to standardise A-level results, which sparked outrage after more than a third of grades predicted by teachers were reduced.
An outcry from teachers, parents and students led to the original teacher-assessed grades being issued.
Miss McIlveen said: ‘It would be my intention that exams will proceed if at all possible and I know that that’s also the intention of the other jurisdictions.
The education minister said she had met with junior minister in the Department for Education Robin Walker on Monday.
‘Certainly he didn’t lead me to believe that it wasn’t his intention to do anything otherwise,’ she said.
She said that there was a meeting of the four regions later this week ‘in order to discuss various options in relation to how Covid is being dealt with, but in particular, examinations’.
Miss McIlveen added that her officials were working with civil servants in other departments across the UK on the issue of exams.