Stormont’s Health Minister has called for the phased introduction of mandatory vaccine passports in Northern Ireland.
Robin Swann’s proposal comes after escalating pressures on the region’s beleaguered health system saw ambulances diverted away from a main hospital for two periods within 24 hours.
The powersharing administration currently recommends that nightclubs and other entertainment venues use Covid status checks on entry, but it has stopped short of making it a legal requirement.
The issue has sharply divided the five-party coalition in Belfast, with the SDLP and Alliance having called for a mandatory certification system as a way to make venues safer and drive up vaccination uptake rates.
The two main parties in the Executive – the DUP and Sinn Fein – have resisted calls for compulsory passports, instead expressing a preference for a “partnership approach” with the hospitality industry.
While DUP minister Edwin Poots made clear on Monday that he remained opposed to such a legal move, Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill signalled her party would follow the health advice on the issue and would “take whatever steps are necessary” to avoid another lockdown.
That suggests the DUP could find itself isolated at Wednesday’s meeting if it continues to oppose compulsory passports.
Ulster Unionist minister Mr Swann said he believed the time was now right for mandatory certification to be introduced.
“I think now is the time for the phased introduction of Covid certification in Northern Ireland,” he told a Stormont news conference on Monday.
Mr Swann said he would bring a proposal to the Executive on Wednesday when he said ministers could discuss the timing of the move and what settings it should be initially applied to.
“Our view as a Department of Health is that we should be using all the tools that are in our options to use,” he added.
Mr Swann said he would like to see the mandatory system being rolled out as soon as the legal regulations were in place – a process he said would take between two to three weeks.
He acknowledged there would be a need for engagement with the hospitality sector in the interim.
Earlier, Mr Poots said he was not in favour of compulsory certification.
“I don’t support that at all,” he told BBC Radio Ulster on Monday morning.
“Over 90% of people are vaccinated and we need to continue to encourage the remainder to get vaccinated, but forcing them is not going to work.
“And I don’t think that creating a two-tier system for so many things is something that I would be prepared to accept.”
Shortly after Mr Swann’s announcement, Ms O’Neill tweeted: “The executive will meet again on Wednesday with a focus on the huge pressures in the health service.
“We will continue to be guided by the health advice to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the public and avoid another lock down scenario.”
Craigavon Area Hospital in Co Armagh stopped receiving ambulances carrying patients with non-life-threatening conditions on Sunday night due to severe capacity issues in its emergency department.
At one point, there were 108 patients waiting in A&E, 32 needing hospital admission.
However, the hospital – which had 123 Covid-19 inpatients last night – only had three available beds.
The first divert was lifted at 10pm on Sunday night, but hospital bosses had to reintroduce it at 10am on Monday morning. The second divert lifted at 2.30pm.
The boss of the Southern Health and Social Care Trust said it was “exceptionally close” to declaring a major incident alert on Sunday.
Shane Devlin said the health service in Northern Ireland was “on the edge”.
The worsening situation within the region’s under-pressure health system comes amid increasing Covid-19 transmission rates, particularly among young people.
Responding to the situation in Craigavon, the British Medical Association had called on the Stormont Executive to revisit the issue of vaccine passports as a “priority”.
Making certification a legal entry requirement for hospitality venues has been credited with driving up vaccination rates among young people in the Irish Republic.
North of the border, the Executive has recommended that nightclubs and other venues carry out Covid entry checks and an official app has been developed to enable people to show proof of their vaccine status.
However, a majority of ministers have so far resisted calls to make it a legal requirement of entry.
Earlier, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of political “cowardice” for not acting sooner on Covid passports.
He warned that Northern Ireland could be facing fresh restrictions if certification was not introduced urgently.
“The message from our health service has been clear – they are on the brink of collapse and want to see urgent mitigations introduced, including the immediate introduction of vaccine certifications to take the pressure off staff and allow patients to get the care they need,” said Mr Eastwood.
“The system that we have, particularly with the level of Covid that we have in our hospitals at the moment, the system is absolutely on the edge in Craigavon and Daisy Hill (hospital) and the other trusts,” he said.
Earlier, Mr Swann said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s recommendation to extend the Covid-19 vaccine boosters to the 40-49 age group and offer second doses to 16 to 17-year-olds will be implemented in Northern Ireland.
The deaths of a further five patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were reported on Monday along with another 1,457 positive cases of the virus.
On Monday morning, there were 412 Covid-positive patients in hospital, with 37 in intensive care.