Northern Ireland is to follow the rest of the UK in allowing fully vaccinated travellers from EU amber countries and the US to enter without the need to quarantine.
The Stormont executive decided on Thursday to relax Covid-19 travel rules from 1 August. Ministers also agreed to let international cruise travel operate in Northern Ireland from Saturday, and to let UEFA VIP guests and Villarreal fans attend the Super Cup match against Chelsea in Belfast on 11 August without isolating.
The announcements came despite Covid-related pressure on hospitals and a warning that the region could face a more severe infection wave than other parts of the UK because of slumping vaccination rates.
The chief scientific adviser, Ian Young, told the Stormont assembly’s health committee that people in Northern Ireland appear less willing to receive a jab than elsewhere in the UK. Patricia Donnelly, head of the vaccination programme, said uptake rates had plunged since the rollout opened to under-30s.
However, evidence that increasing positive case numbers may have plateaued this week appears to have emboldened the executive to relax rules.
The five-party coalition agreed to ease social distancing to one metre in certain contexts, such as shopping centres, from 6pm on Friday.
“The executive remains concerned about the spread of the virus and its transmissibility,” it said in a statement. “The virus remains a risk to our health and economic wellbeing and the steps taken today must be seen in that context.”
Live music will be permitted to return to concert halls and theatres and other indoor venues such as hotels and community halls, with entrance by ticket only. Plans to reopen conferences and exhibitions were delayed and will be reviewed in August.
About 83% of Northern Ireland’s adult population has received the first dose of a vaccine, while 71% are fully vaccinated. Just under 60% of 18-29-year-olds have received a first jab. The figure is 70% for the 30-39 age group.
Young told the health committee that Northern Ireland lagged behind England, Scotland and Wales in terms of first dose vaccination by around by at least 5% to 6%. “In terms of second doses vaccination, we’re very similar to England and Scotland but we lag behind Wales by about 10%.”
Donnelly told assembly members she worried that the pace of the vaccination programme “went off a cliff” in June when it opened to younger cohorts. Behavioural experts attribute the reluctance to come forward for jabs to convenience rather than safety concerns, she said.