Robin Swann seeks fellow ministers’ views on lifting Covid-19 rules
Robin Swann has asked other minsters to indicate by Monday whether they support pressing ahead with lifting the remaining Covid rules in the absence of an Executive.
Their removal has been held up following the resignation of First Minister Paul Givan, leaving the region in limbo and prompting a former DUP minister to brand the situation “a disgrace”.
The Health Minister told his Stormont colleagues he had received legal advice indicating he cannot lift the regulations in the absence of the Executive, although the DUP disputes this.
A letter, seen by the BBC, states government lawyers have suggested the issue would be “significant” and would need Executive approval.
But the BBC also reported Mr Swann has been advised if other ministers agree that changing the regulations is not deemed significant, controversial, or cutting across the responsibility of another department, he could proceed with minimal risk.
Mr Swann has asked for responses by 1pm on Monday.
There are fears he could face a legal challenge if he eases Covid safety measures. However, there are also concerns campaigners could go to court if restrictions remain in place.
On Friday night Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton, a former DUP Economy Minister, blamed “instability at Stormont” for the lack of progress this week on removing the curbs.
Mr Hamilton tweeted: “It is, quite frankly, a complete disgrace that it appears, as feared, people and businesses in NI may be stuck with Covid restrictions because of instability at Stormont whilst the rest of the UK and Ireland begin to benefit from their removal.”
On Thursday Sinn Fein former Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said there was a “real prospect” Covid restrictions, such as the legal duty to wear face coverings, may have to remain.
But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insisted Mr Swann had the legal authority to act, and the removal of restrictions did not need to be a collective decision.
Economy Minister Gordon Lyons also told the BBC a “minor” easing of restrictions did not require Executive endorsement.
“I have responded to him, saying that I think that he should take this decision, that he can take this decision,” he added.
SDLP Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said the situation had arisen as a result of the “DUP boycott of Executive responsibility”.
She continued: “Today should have been a major milestone in our recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“After all the sacrifices that people, families and businesses have made over the last two years, we should have been in a position to lift a significant number of the remaining legal restrictions.”
On Friday Mr Swann refused to comment on reports Westminster wanted a UK-wide relaxation of Covid rules this month.
It has been claimed talks have been opened with the devolved administrations in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh to ensure a coordinated approach when it comes to lifting safety measures.
Mr Swann was asked for his position on the matter, but a Department of Health said there was nothing further to add to a statement issued on Thursday.