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Justice minister’s concern over enforcing face-covering compliance

A woman holds an iPhone viewing the COVIDCert NI Mobile App in Belfast. The app is a digital wallet for Health & Social Care Northern Ireland (HSC NI) COVID certificates. Pic by Liam McBurney

By Jonathan McCambridge, PA

It would be “entirely inappropriate” for her department to take the lead in managing compliance around the wearing of face coverings, Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister has said.

Naomi Long set out her view in a letter to Health Minister Robin Swann, in which she raised concerns about some measures he has proposed to combat the spread of Covid.

The Executive is meeting on Monday to discuss the Department of Health proposals.

These include tougher working-from-home advice and a new scoring system on Covid compliance for businesses.

The “scores on the doors” scheme, similar to those in place for food safety standards, would see the development of a “Covid score” for businesses based on an assessment of the measures they have in place and their compliance with public health regulations.

Mr Swann has also warned that compliance with mask-wearing and the use of face coverings is insufficient in Northern Ireland, and that enforcement needs to be strengthened and action taken against those who are non-compliant.

In his paper to Executive ministers, Mr Swann said: “I look to my colleague the Justice Minister to take the lead in pursuing a minimum of 80% adherence to the wearing of face-covering requirements.”

But in a letter to Mr Swann, seen by the PA news agency, Mrs Long said enforcement was the responsibility of a “number of statutory organisations”.

Her letter said: “I must record formally that it would be entirely inappropriate for me, as Justice Minister, or indeed the Executive, to accede to your request with the regard to the enforcement of public health regulations.”

She added: “To clarify, it is for the Executive to instigate legislation and indeed, within that legislation, to define the powers for its enforcement.

“However, it is entirely inappropriate for the Executive to then appoint itself, or indeed any of its ministers, to an oversight role for enforcement activity.

“As has been highlighted on a number of occasions, enforcement is the responsibility of a number of statutory organisations and they must be allowed to conduct this enforcement activity without interference.”

Mrs Long’s letter continued: “Any PSNI enforcement of the public health regulations is an operational matter for the chief constable….it would be completely inappropriate for me to be seen to interfere in PSNI enforcement activity.

“In addition, I am at a loss to understand why you think I should be responsible for levels of adherence to face-covering regulations.

“These are public health regulations put in place for public health purposes. The duty rests with the proprietors of the settings named in the first instance.”

Meanwhile, the organisation which represents rank and file police officers in Northern Ireland has said the PSNI “cannot be expected to solely carry the burden of Covid-19 enforcement”.

Chairman of the Police Federation, Mark Lindsay, said: “Organisations other than the police have responsibilities to uphold the legislation. The smoking ban is largely enforced by the retail and entertainment sectors.

“Only on very rare occasions are police called in to deal with breaches of the peace where people wilfully ignore the instruction from staff. The same should apply to Covid regulations.

“There is a collective responsibility by ministers to deliver on enforcement. Efforts to make the Department of Justice the main enforcement department are misplaced.

“Others, too, such as public transport and entertainment and retail sectors must work in unison to deliver effective enforcement.”

Executive ministers are also discussing the new working-from-home advice which has been proposed by Mr Swann. Last week he advised anyone who worked from home when the pandemic began to do so again now.

But a letter from DUP Economy Minister Gordon Lyons to the Health Minister has raised concerns over the messaging.

The letter, seen by the PA news agency, said: “I need to raise significant concerns with the proposed messaging around working from home – namely that if a person worked from home when Covid-19 first arrived in spring 2020, then they should be working from home now.

“This is an overly simplistic approach which would deliver a message that actually miscommunicates Executive policy to the public, would cause public confusion and create industrial relations tensions for a whole host of public services.”

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