Plans by the Executive to make the wearing of face covers compulsory on public transport have hit a stumbling block.
t had been expected that Stormont leaders would confirm yesterday that it would be mandatory for passengers to wear face masks.
However, a delay in legal advice has pushed any move back.
Face coverings on public transport became a requirement in the Republic yesterday, and have been in parts of the UK for a number of weeks.
At their joint Stormont Covid-19 briefing yesterday First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the matter will be addressed on Thursday when the legal advice is made available.
The DUP leader said Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon wanted Executive colleagues to consider mandatory face coverings on buses and trains.
“We don’t want to criminalise people because many people will not be able to wear masks because of medical issues,” said Mrs Foster.
“It is important that we don’t rush into things just for the sake of it. People expect us to do that as Government ministers.”
The delay comes as the Department of Health confirmed that one further person has died, bringing the total Covid-19 death toll here to 551.
Yesterday it was also confirmed that a further six positive cases had been detected out of 964 people tested in the previous 24 hours.
The total number of infections now stands at 5,757, and yesterday was the third consecutive day there were no Covid-19 patients in intensive care.
Meanwhile, there are 33 confirmed Covid-19 outbreaks in care homes, with 16 suspected cases.
Mrs O’Neill said it was important to have all the necessary information in order to make a call on the issue of masks.
“We will come back to this issue on Thursday when we have the legal advice about how best to put things in place,” the Sinn Fein vice-president said.
“As Friday comes and more things open up and more people are moving around, then wearing face coverings is obviously going to be a key part of that in terms of mitigations and being able to at least help to prevent the spread of the virus.”
Mrs Foster said that while the matter wasn’t on the Executive’s agenda yesterday, because there was a “need for clarity” regarding the legal advice, wearing coverings was good practice for the public to follow.
“The current position of the Executive is that we strongly recommend that people wear face coverings in closed settings such as public transport or other small areas,” she added.
“We would strongly recommend that at present.”
She also dismissed suggestions that if Northern Ireland had different rules on masks from the Republic, it would cause confusion for cross-border commuters and travellers.
Mrs Foster said anyone travelling over the border on public transport should wear a mask for the entire journey – and vice versa.
“(If) you’re on a train that’s going to Dublin, then you should be wearing the mask,” she added.
Meanwhile, it was announced that groups of up to 30 will be allowed to meet outdoors in line with plans to further ease the lockdown.
Mrs Foster said Health Minister Robin Swann would lay regulations on the issue, but rules around indoor meetings will remain at a maximum of six people.
In the coming weeks hotels, bars servings food, restaurants, coffee shops, attractions, hair salons and gyms are set to reopen, but the DUP leader warned that this is “not business as usual”.
“While we have managed to suppress the spread of the virus here, it has not been beaten and while the hunt for a vaccine continues and while the rate of infection remains under control, we cannot assume that that will always be the case,” she said.
Mrs O’Neill said the message around people sticking to two-metre social distancing if it was possible had not been heard well enough after it had been reduced to one metre to help the hospitality sector.
“I would urge all businesses to act responsibly, as so many already are. It is encouraging to see the work going on for reopening,” she said.
Mrs Foster also spoke of the importance of church services resuming and revealed that she had attended St Macartin’s Cathedral in Enniskillen on Sunday day morning.
She said it was important for worshippers to be able to “come together” with social distancing in place.
“It has been incredibly difficult, particularly for those who have been mourning,” she added.