Wearing face coverings in crowded indoor settings will remain a legal requirement in Northern Ireland throughout this autumn and winter, the First Minister has told MLAs.
Paul Givan also said that Covid status certification could be deployed as a contingency measure in some high-risk settings if cases rise sharply.
But, setting out the Executive’s Autumn/Winter Covid Contingency Plan, Mr Givan said if everybody follows the rules the public can look forward to a winter with fewer restrictions than at any point during the pandemic.
Delivering a statement at Stormont, he said: “In respect of the Autumn/Winter Covid Contingency Plan we start with the need to keep sectors open to the fullest possible extent and hopefully in totality.
“Our schools and further education sectors are back and we will want to protect that along with protecting our health service.
“We want to keep our businesses and leisure sectors open and we want to minimise impacts on citizens over the coming months.
“We have the best chance of doing this if we all continue to follow the basics and if as many people as possible take the vaccines.”
The Assembly heard that just over 82% of people aged 12 and above in Northern Ireland have received one dose of the vaccine.
Mr Givan said a new public information campaign will be launched at the end of October.
He said: “While the importance of personal responsibility cannot be overstated, we have retained some baseline measures.
“These include the retention of a legal requirement for face coverings in crowded indoor settings, the retention of a focus on flexible and hybrid working to reduce the number of social contacts that take place in work settings, the continuing legal requirement for risk assessments to be carried out in certain settings, and for visitor and attendee details to be recorded to support the work of the test, trace and protect system.
“In the event that case numbers rise sharply or hospital pressures become unsustainable, the autumn/winter paper identifies a number of potential contingency measures, which include more focused communications to emphasise the risk and the need for everyone to act immediately, the potential to deploy Covid status certification in high-risk settings if considered appropriate and necessary.”
He added: “We are very mindful that the Covid pandemic has been with us for 19 months and we appreciate that it has been incredibly difficult for everyone.
“We have adopted a cautious approach to the relaxation of restrictions as we have sought to carefully balance the health and wellbeing of our citizens with societal, community and economic considerations.
“The autumn/winter plan is a continuation of this approach.
“The efforts that have been made by so many in recent months to drive up vaccination rates and step up compliance with mitigations do seem to be working. It is vital that we don’t let up, we must maintain our focus and collective endeavour.
“If we all do our part, we can look forward to an autumn/winter period with fewer restrictions than at any time during the pandemic.”