Covid-19: Home working advised in Northern Ireland

People in Northern Ireland are being urged by Stormont ministers to work from home “where possible” in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Current advice already states that people should work from home where they can but ministers said they were “strengthening” that message.

If follows an executive meeting about how to tackle rising infections.

Ministers are also advising the public to limit their social contacts and wear face coverings in indoor settings.

In a joint statement after Tuesday’s meeting, executive ministers said Covid-19 had “once again taken a firm grip across our society”.

“Hospital admissions are rising and modelling indicates that admissions will increase further in the coming weeks,” the ministers said.

“The clear advice from public health experts is that an intervention is now required.”

Ministers said that if more people worked from home it would help to reduce the risk of infection both inside and outside the workplace.


A happy business owner opening the door at a cafe while wearing a facemask

Image source, Getty/Andresr

However, they stopped short of ordering employers to facilitate home working, saying they “recognise that this may present challenges in some work areas”.

Instead, ministers said they were asking employees “to work from home where they can and advise employers to support this where possible”.

The statement follows a proposal from Health Minister Robin Swann, who had said he believed anyone working from home again last year when the pandemic began should do so again.

Mr Swann presented a paper to ministers for consideration on Monday.

Masks and scores-on-the-doors

It is understood the Stormont executive has asked its Covid taskforce to examine issues around enforcement of wearing face masks.

The taskforce will also look at the potential of setting up a scores-on-the-doors type system to rate businesses on their compliance with rules and mitigations.

Last week, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer advised that working from home was a “significant way” to reduce transmission of the virus.

But it is understood the executive recognises not all employers are able to facilitate this again.

Mr Swann had warned hospitality businesses may have to close over Christmas unless coronavirus transmission rates fall.

On Tuesday, First Minister Paul Givan tweeted that the executive had “engaged constructively and agreed a number of measures that will step up our collective efforts against the spread of Covid”.

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Earlier, Justice Minister Naomi Long said Stormont ministers may have to reintroduce some Covid-19 restrictions if there are “no alternatives”.

She said the executive was “looking for ways that we can avoid having to take those drastic measures” by focusing on measures such as the vaccine booster programme and Covid certification “to make high-risk venues as safe as possible”.

She said it was also being examined if there is “more we can do in terms of our messaging”.

Mrs Long, the Alliance Party leader, said on Monday that ministers were “not planning for Christmas closures”.

On Tuesday, she told BBC News NI that there was a “critical period” ahead and “we still have it within our gift” to avoid the need for restrictions.

‘Half statements’

However, Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster, which represents the hospitality industry, said the “rhetoric” coming from Stormont was unhelpful.

“I appreciate that planning has to go on behind closed doors,” he said, but added that politicians were making “half statements” with no promise of support if tighter restrictions are imposed.


Naomi Long


“Those statements say to our workers: ‘You might not have a job before Christmas’ and it says to customers: ‘Stay away’.”

He said staff were being given conflict resolution training.

“We have seen abuse and the abuse levels are escalating. The vast majority of hospitality venues do not have doormen and we can’t ask our staff to take abuse,” he said.

The executive met on Tuesday amid a high number of cases of Covid-19.

On Monday, three Covid-19-related deaths were reported in Northern Ireland and a further 1,469 new cases.

Northern Ireland’s infection rate has been climbing over the past week or so – it is the highest in the UK, slightly above Wales, and has just overtaken the Republic of Ireland.

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After a meeting of Stormont ministers on Monday, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted that it was “constructive and progress was made” but it was agreed that “more work was needed”.

Mr Swann warned there was a possibility that hospitality venues may be asked to close over Christmas if Covid-19 cases continue to increase.

But he said it was not inevitable.


Robin Swann

Image source, PA Media

He also expressed disappointment that some hospitality venues had not acted responsibly after social distancing rules were relaxed.

Orla Smyth, who owns a cafe in Belfast, told BBC News NI that speculation about future measures was not “helpful for public confidence in using services”.

She explained it also made it difficult for “business owners being able to function”.

On Tuesday, Mrs Long said she did not have a “crystal ball” about how the coming weeks will unfold, but said she believed “people have become slightly complacent because of the vaccine”.

When asked about the number of people who do not wear mandatory face coverings in retail settings, she said it was not the “primary responsibility” of the police to enforce this.

Rather, she added it was one of a number of agencies who have a role to play.

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