Coronavirus: Robin Swann calls on NI Executive to reconsider face coverings policy

By Enda McClafferty
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

  • Published
Shoppers wearing face coveringsImage source, EPA

The NI Executive should urgently reconsider its policy on face coverings in shops, Health Minister Robin Swann has said.

Mr Swann said there is a "perception - fair or otherwise" of mixed messaging, which needs to be cleared up.

Face coverings are strongly encouraged in Northern Ireland's shops, but are not mandatory.

The NI Executive is due to review the policy on 20 August and could make them law on that date.

There have been no new Covid-19-related deaths recorded by the Department of Health over the weekend, which means the death toll recorded by the department remains at 556.

On Monday, it was reported there have been 40 new confirmed cases, bringing the total number of positive cases here to 5,988.

The department's daily figures are mostly comprised of hospital deaths, where a patient had previously tested positive for the virus.

Tweet of support

Face coverings in shops are mandatory in England and Scotland, but not Wales.

Ministers are looking for a compliance rate of between 70%-80% and could enforce face coverings if public uptake falls below that level.

However, in a letter sent to executive colleagues on Sunday and seen by BBC News NI, Mr Swann called for the review date to be brought forward to 13 August.

On Monday morning Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill indicated on Twitter that she supported Mr Swann's call to bring forward the date.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

The health minister said he is not convinced the advice will be heeded and he wants the executive to warn the public that if they do not listen, the policy will be enforced "in the coming days".

He added that the current policy is being viewed by some as "vague and confusing".

"While the executive is united on the need for face coverings, there have been differences of opinion on how best this can be achieved," he wrote.

"That led to a compromise position being adopted by the executive last month.

Image source, PAcemaker

"While some may view that position as nuanced and graduated, others have depicted it as vague and confusing."

He added that the "wording of the decision had been the subject of different interpretations" and the "ambiguity has not proved to be constructive".

Mr Swann said the "messaging will be much more effective if backed by a clear and collective signal of intent on the mandatory issue".

The health minister also said the review date for the policy should be brought forward from 20 August to 13 August, with a "projected start date for enforcement" the following day.

He signed off the letter suggesting they "still have time to clear up any confusion and set out a concise position".

Mr Swann has previously said he was not convinced that enough people would wear face coverings in shops without an element of enforcement.