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Stormont to advise against travel between Northern Ireland and rest of UK

Written by on 22 December 2020

Stormont ministers are set to advise against non-essential travel between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK after an outright ban was voted down.

Ministers in Northern Ireland will also advise people not to travel to the Republic of Ireland.

A Sinn Fein proposal for a temporary prohibition on travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was defeated during an emergency late night virtual executive meeting, the Press Association understands.

The meeting was convened at short notice after health minister Robin Swann circulated a paper responding to the emergence of the COVID-19 variant, in which he recommended issuing guidance against all but essential travel rather than proceeding to an immediate ban.

It is understood the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Alliance opposed the Sinn Fein proposal while the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) supported it.

After that was rejected, ministers then agreed Mr Swann’s recommendations without the need for a formal vote.

The paper tabled by the health minister also called for further preparatory work to examine legal issues around the introduction of any travel ban.

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Robin Swann circulated a paper responding to the emergence of the variant

He drew up the proposals following consultation with Northern Ireland’s attorney general on the issue of travel restrictions.

After the meeting, Mr Swann tweeted: “Pleased that Exec has agreed my paper tonight, including immediate guidance against all but essential travel between NI and GB/RoI, with all new arrivals here asked to self-isolate for 10 days.

“More work needed on option of legal travel ban, both legally and logistically – vital supplies to NI and essential travel need to be protected.”

Ahead of the executive convening, Sinn Fein finance minister Conor Murphy wrote to Mr Swann expressing “dismay and astonishment” that he was not moving immediately to instigate a ban on travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Mr Murphy called on Mr Swann to reconsider the position he had set out in his paper.

Ministers have been debating the possibility of amending the 1967 Public Health Act to introduce short-term travel restrictions.

While Sinn Fein supports the move, the DUP insists that UK internal travel is already prohibited from Tier 4 areas in England, so there is no need for added Stormont legislation to enforce that.

Earlier on Monday, DUP First Minister Arlene Foster warned of serious ramifications if a travel ban was introduced.

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Northern Ireland’s Deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill speaks about looming lockdown

Mrs Foster said the new strain of coronavirus has probably already arrived and warned that supply chains could be endangered by restricting travel.

“It is a very simplistic thing to say, ‘let’s close Northern Ireland off’,” she said.

“That has ramifications and as first minister I have to take all those into account as well.

“I have always tried to be proportionate and balanced in everything that I have done through this crisis, and I am going to continue to do that.”

On Monday evening, Sinn Fein deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “We are facing a very grave situation.

“There is no time to loose (sic) in agreeing a travel ban from Britain. Belfast and Dublin must act together to keep everyone on this island safe.”

Her party leader Mary Lou McDonald tweeted an identical message.

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Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s scientific adviser, said earlier there was now a “reinforced” view that the variant strain was spreading more quickly.

Fears of the new variant have led to some-40 countries effectively cutting off travel with the UK and have also tightened travel rules within Britain.

Health officials in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands went as far as urging anyone arriving from areas in England with the toughest restrictions – and travellers from Wales – to “assume” they have the new mutation and self-isolate for 10 days.